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With One Stone

by Timothy Zahn

It was Silesian space.

It was escort duty for convoys of Her Majesty's merchant marine.

It was going to be boring as hell.

Lieutenant (Senior Grade) Rafael Cardones stifled a sigh as the Star Knight-class heavy cruiser HMS Fearless slid smoothly into its slot in Sphinx orbit. It wasn't fair, and everyone aboard knew it. After all they'd gone through at Basilisk Station a few months back, and especially now with a shiny, brand-new-out-of-the-box warship wrapped around them, surely the Admiralty could have given them something more challenging than to run endlessly back and forth between Basilisk and the roiling cesspool of political chaos laughingly called the Silesian Confederacy.

"Nodes to standby," the ship's commander ordered in that smooth soprano of hers, and Cardones threw a surreptitious look at her. If Captain Honor Harrington was dismayed by the thought of escort duty, it certainly didn't show in her face. Her expression was almost serene, in fact, as if she didn't have a care in the world.

Of course, Cardones recalled, her expression had been nearly that serene as she ordered their former ship, the late lamented light cruiser Fearless, to charge off across the Basilisk system in pursuit of an eight-million-ton Q-ship owned and operated by the People's Republic of Haven. A Q-ship, moreover, that might as well have been a full-fledged battlecruiser for the weight of armament it carried.

While their light cruiser might as well have been a glorified LAC after all the gutting Admiral Sonja Hemphill had done to it in order to make room for her precious experimental grav lance. The fact that Captain Harrington had managed to keep the Fearless together long enough to find a way to use that self-same grav lance against the Peep Q-ship was irrelevant, as far as Cardones was concerned. To him, it had been borderline criminal stupidity on Hemphill's part, and the rumor mill had it that Captain Harrington had said so directly to her face at the Weapons Development Board hearing afterward. Not in so many words, of course.

He took another look at the captain's face. On second thought, he decided, that expression wasn't serene at all. Captain Harrington was looking forward to the chance to hunt down some pirates and kick their collective butt.

Maybe this tour wasn't going to be quite as boring as he'd first thought.

Across the bridge, Lieutenant Joyce Metzinger straightened suddenly in her chair. "Captain, I'm getting a signal from HMS Basilisk," she announced.

Cardones glanced back at the captain, saw a slight frown of surprise. She'd done a stint aboard Basilisk, he knew, before being given her first hyper-capable command. Tac officer, if he remembered correctly, the same post he himself currently held aboard Fearless. Was Admiral Trent simply calling to say hello?

He was half right. "Admiral Trent sends his greetings," Metzinger continued. "He also requests your presence aboard at your earliest convenience."

The com officer glanced at Cardones. "He also requests that you bring Lieutenant Cardones with you."

Cardones blinked. And he had never served aboard Basilisk. What in the world . . . ?

"Acknowledge the admiral's message, Joyce," Captain Harrington told Metzinger. She stood and half turned, holding out her arms to the treecat wrapped lazily across the back of her command chair. He leaped gracefully into her arms, then scampered up into his usual traveling position along her shoulders. "And have my pinnace prepared. Rafe?"

"Right away, Ma'am," Cardones said, already on his feet. An admiral's earliest convenience was any regular mortal's five minutes ago, and it would not do to keep Trent waiting.

The Basilisk was a superdreadnought, three and a half kilometers long and eight and a quarter million tons of fighting fury. Cardones eyed it as their pinnace approached, his thoughts balanced midway between future anticipation and future regret. To serve aboard a prestigious ship of the wall had been his dream ever since he'd put on the uniform of the Royal Manticoran Navy. But on the other hand, with a ship that size the sheer number of people aboard tended to make even senior officers mere cogs in a machine far larger than they were. Even if he someday made it aboard such a ship, he suspected he would look wistfully back at his days aboard smaller ships like the Fearless, where each person made more of a difference.

Especially since even cruisers could sometimes make their presence felt on the galactic stage if they were in the right place at the right time, as Captain Harrington had proved at Basilisk Station. All in all, it might not be such a bad thing to serve a while aboard the RMN's smaller ships.

The Basilisk's boat bay was the usual scene of controlled chaos as Cardones followed Captain Harrington through the boarding tube to the sound of the side party's bosun's pipes. The boat bay officer of the deck and quartermaster were off to one side, conferring over a memo pad, while at the other side a work party was tearing into one of the fueling stations. He glanced once in that direction as he landed on the deck behind his captain, hoping they'd remembered to seal off the hydrogen tanks and clear the hoses before they fired up their cutting torches. He'd heard once of a party that had forgotten, and it hadn't been pretty.

Given the unusualness of Trent's invitation, Cardones would have expected the admiral to add to the novelty by coming himself to greet his visitors. But except for the side party there were only two people waiting for them: a tall man wearing the four gold sleeve rings and collar planets of a captain of the list, and an almost equally tall woman with the same four sleeve rings but the collar pips of a captain junior grade.

"Captain Harrington," the man said, stepping forward to meet them. "I'm Captain Olbrecht, Admiral Trent's chief of staff. Welcome aboard the Basilisk."

He smiled as he stretched out his hand. "Or rather," he added, "welcome back aboard."

"Thank you, Captain," Captain Harrington said, taking the proffered hand and shaking it. "This is Lieutenant Rafael Cardones, my tac officer."

"Yes," Olbrecht said, nodding as he extended his hand to Cardones. His eyes flicked across his face and down his torso with the sort of evaluating glance senior officers always seemed to give their juniors. "Welcome aboard, Lieutenant."

"Thank you, Sir," Cardones said. Olbrecht's grip was firm and precise, exactly the sort of handshake senior officers always seemed to offer their juniors.

"This is Captain Elayne Sandler," Olbrecht went on, releasing Cardones's hand and gesturing to the woman still standing a respectful pace behind him. "You'll be going with her, Lieutenant."

Cardones felt his spine stiffen slightly. On the trip over he'd come to the conclusion that there was fresh data on the Silesian situation that Trent wanted to discuss with the Fearless's skipper and tac officer. But if he was now going to be split off from her . . . 

"Yes, Sir," he managed, turning his head to nod to the woman.

She nodded back, her cool eyes giving him the same once-over Olbrecht had just performed. Apparently it was a technique senior officers were issued with their collar insignia. "This way, Lieutenant," she said, turning and heading off toward one of the lifts.

"Yes, Ma'am," Cardones murmured, looking at Captain Harrington. "Ma'am?"

"Go ahead, Rafe," she said, her voice calm and completely unconcerned. "I'll see you later."

"Yes, Ma'am," he said. Her voice might have been calm, but Cardones had caught the puzzlement briefly creasing her forehead. So this wasn't something she'd been expecting, either. He headed off after Captain Sandler, trying to decide whether that was a good sign or a bad one.

He caught up with Sandler at the lift. "Sorry to make such a cloak and dagger out of this," Sandler commented as she palmed the call button. "But you'll understand in a minute."

"Yes, Ma'am," Cardones said, settling for a neutral response as he watched Olbrecht and Captain Harrington disappear into one of the other lifts. Heading somewhere entirely different, apparently, than he and Sandler were bound.

The lift doors in front of them slid open, and they stepped inside. A minute later the car deposited them outside one of the Basilisk's ready rooms. Sandler touched the release and stepped inside; forcing the tension out of his shoulders, Cardones followed.

There were six people seated around the long briefing table, all of them looking back at the newcomers. Cardones glanced down the double row, automatically taking in faces and rank insignia.

His eyes reached the woman at the head of the table. An admiral, he noted with mild surprise. He lifted his eyes from her collar to her face—

And with a surge of rushing blood in his ears the tension came roaring back like a hyper-space grav wave slapping him in the face.

It wasn't just an admiral. It was Admiral Sonja Hemphill.

"Lieutenant Cardones," she said, gesturing a slender hand toward the empty chair two places down from her left, between a pair of men wearing lieutenant commander's and ensign's insignia, respectively. "Please; sit down."

Her voice was even, almost calm. But Cardones wasn't fooled for a minute. This was the woman whose "innovations" had nearly gotten him and the entire crew of the Fearless killed, and the woman who Captain Harrington had humiliated in front of her peers over it.

And now here she was, inviting that same Captain Harrington's tac officer to a private and apparently secret meeting.

This was definitely Not Good.

But an admiral was still an admiral. "Yes, Ma'am," he said, circling the foot of the table and heading for the indicated chair. Captain Sandler, he noted, was heading for the likewise empty seat at Hemphill's right.

Hemphill waited until they were both seated. "My name is Admiral Sonja Hemphill, Lieutenant," Hemphill introduced herself. The corner of her mouth might have twitched. "I believe you've heard of me."

"Yes, Ma'am," Cardones confirmed, his parade-ground neutral expression firmly in place.

"You've already met Captain Sandler," Hemphill went on, gesturing to the man to Cardones's right. "This is Lieutenant Commander Jack Damana; on your left is Ensign Georgio Pampas."

Cardones exchanged silent nods with them. Damana was short and freckled, with brown eyes and the shade of carrot-colored hair that Cardones usually associated with cheerful, casual types. But if either of those characteristics was included in Damana's personality, he was hiding it well. Pampas seemed to have been extruded from much the same mold, except that he sported the olive skin and dark hair of a heritage stretching back to Old Earth Mediterranean stock.

"Across from you is Lieutenant Jessica Hauptman," Hemphill continued.

Cardones went through the nodding routine again. Hauptman was medium height and running a little to the plump side, with brown hair and eyes and a name that rang a bell as unpleasantly out of tune as Hemphill's. It hadn't been all that long ago that Klaus Hauptman, head of the huge Hauptman Cartel, had come charging personally out to Basilisk system for a raging confrontation with the then Commander Harrington over her war against smugglers operating out of the Basilisk Terminus. The details of that confrontation were still shrouded in secrecy, but normally reliable sources had it that Hauptman had had his head handed to him.

Still, there was no animosity in Hauptman's face that he could see. No real resemblance to Klaus, either, for that matter. If she was in fact related to him, it had to be something pretty distant.

"To her right," Hemphill concluded, "are Senior Chief Petty Officer Nathan Swofford and Petty Officer First Colleen Jackson."

Cardones wrenched his mind away from Hauptman's face and name and nodded to the others. Swofford had a heavyweight wrestler's build, with blond hair and a half smile that somehow never quite touched his gray eyes, while Jackson seemed to be entirely constructed of varying shades of black.

"Together," Hemphill said, settling back in her chair, "they constitute ONI Tech Team Four."

Cardones felt himself straighten up, his carefully constructed house of paranoia collapsing into embarrassed rubble. Whatever grudges or even vendettas Hemphill might carry against Captain Harrington, she was still an Admiral of the Red; and Admirals of the Red did not casually divert Naval Intelligence task groups for their own private purposes.

"I see," he said, the words sounding incredibly lame. "How can I be of assistance, Ma'am?"

Hemphill gestured to Sandler. "Over the past few months we've been hearing rumors of something new going on in Silesia," Sandler said, tapping the table's keypad. A hologram of the Silesian Confederacy appeared over the table, with the major systems marked. "Specifically, rumors that someone out there is using a new weapon or technique for taking down merchant ships. Up until a month ago the only hard data we had was the locations of the attacks."

Six flashing red dots appeared in the hologram, the intensity range indicating oldest to most recent. Offhand, Cardones couldn't see anything significant in the pattern.

"It was only with this one—" a seventh dot appeared, brighter than the rest "—that we finally got something solid: another merchie in the system managed to get some sensor readings. They were too far away for anything really conclusive, but what they were able to get was highly suggestive."

"Of what?" Cardones asked.

Sandler pursed her lips. "We think someone out there's gotten hold of an advanced form of the grav lance."

"How advanced?" Cardones asked.

"Very," Sandler said bluntly. "Point one: it was able to take down the merchie's wedge."

Cardones felt himself sitting up a little straighter. The grav lance he and Fearless had been saddled with had been capable only of destroying an enemy's sidewalls, not the impeller wedge itself. Even granted that merchie impellers were weaker than those of a warship—

"And point two," Sandler added softly, "it took the wedge down from a million kilometers away."

Something with enough cold fingers for a dozen treecats began playing an arpeggio along Cardones's spine. The best grav lance the RMN possessed could hit an enemy from barely a tenth of that range, which was what made it such an unhelpful weapon in the first place. If this version was really able to take down impellers and could do it without needing to get into point-blank range first . . . 

"I don't think you need the implications spelled out for you," Sandler went on. "We're still not entirely convinced that's what's going on out there; but if it is, we need to find out. And fast."

"Absolutely," Cardones agreed. "How can I help?"

"You're the only RMN tac officer who's ever used a grav lance in combat," Sandler said. "As such, Admiral Hemphill suggested you might be able to offer some useful insights as we go take a look at the most recent victim."

"Or what we suspect is the most recent victim," Hemphill added. "The Lorelei, seven and a half million tons, out of Gryphon."

"Yes, Ma'am," Cardones said, looking at Hemphill with an almost unwilling stirring of new respect. It must have taken a whole soup dish's worth of swallowed pride for her to have brought one of Captain Harrington's officers in on this. "I have to warn you, though, that I'm not very well versed in the grav lance's technical aspects," he cautioned.

"That part's already covered," Sandler said, gesturing to the end of the table. "Ensign Pampas, Chief Swofford, and PO First Jackson should have all the tech expertise we need. What we're looking for from you is the eye of experience."

"Yes, Ma'am," Cardones said, trying to suppress his quiet misgivings. Yes, he'd fired the grav lance in combat; but that hardly made him an expert on the damn thing. He just hoped Hemphill wasn't expecting more from him than he could deliver. "When will the orders be cut?"

"Already done," Hemphill said. "Captain Sandler has your copy; Captain Harrington's will be given to her after her conference with Admiral Trent. Your replacement will be ready to join Fearless at that same time."

Cardones felt his stomach tighten. "Replacement?"

"A temporary replacement only," Sandler assured him. "You're still officially assigned to Fearless."

"On the other hand, who knows?" Hemphill said. "If you do well on this mission, ONI could decide they'd like you on staff full-time."

"I see," Cardones said. She meant it as a compliment, of course. Offhand, though, he could think of nothing he would like less than to be sitting in an Intelligence office somewhere trying to sift gold nuggets out of the effluvia of Peep propaganda 'faxes.

"Jack will fly you back to Fearless to pick up your kit," Sandler said. "We'll leave as soon as you get back. You can chew over the latest data and information once we're underway."

There must have been something in his face, because she smiled faintly. "No, we aren't taking Basilisk with us. We have our own ship, the Shadow. I think you'll like her."

"Captain Sandler will answer any other questions," Hemphill said, getting to her feet. "Needless to say, everything you've heard and seen here comes under the Official Secrets Act."

Her eyes locked like a pair of grasers on Cardones's face. "We're counting on you, Lieutenant," she said quietly. "Don't let us down."


Honor ran through to the end of the report and looked up at Admiral Trent, seated at the head of the bridge briefing room table. "I hope, Sir," she said carefully, "that this is some kind of serious misreading of either the data or the situation."

"So do I, Honor," Trent agreed heavily. "But even granting the extreme range the readings were taken at, and the low quality of the merchie sensors that took them, I don't see where there's much margin for error."

"And frankly, Captain, I don't see where there's any margin," the man seated across the table from Honor said, his voice a bit testy. "I know we all tend to think of the People's Republic as the only threat out there. But they're not, and it's high time we started remembering to look in other directions."

Honor focused on him. Lieutenant Commander Stockton Wallace was probably a few years older than she was, with dark hair and eyes and a deep cleft in the center of his chin. He was also intense, verbally blunt, and, to her mind, a little quick to jump to conclusions.

But then, perhaps those were qualities Naval Intelligence appreciated in one of their officers.

"That's a little unfair, Commander," she said. "No one's forgotten the Andermani Empire, or their long-standing interest in swallowing up Silesia."

"Good," Wallace said. "Then I presume we also haven't forgotten that Manticore is all that stands in the way of that ambition?"

"No, we haven't," Honor said evenly. "But at the same time, starting a war of conquest by sneak-attacking Manticoran merchantmen seems a very non-Andy way of going about it."

She tapped the memo pad. "For that matter, we have no proof that this ship had anything to do with either of the attacks."

"Are you suggesting it just happened upon two dead merchantmen?" Wallace asked, his voice somehow managing to convey contempt without crossing the line into insubordination. Probably another talent ONI selected for. "And didn't bother to report it; and then turned and ran the minute he was spotted?"

Honor fought back a retort. Unfortunately, he had a point. In both instances the merchantmen who'd spotted the mysterious ship had hailed it, only to see it flee without making any response.

And when investigating ships had gone to the scenes, they'd found attacked and looted Manticoran merchantmen floating dead in space.

"Fine," she said instead. "Then let's talk about the identification itself. Even if this secondary emission spectrum is consistent with that of an Andy ship, there must be other possibilities."

Wallace pursed his lips. "With all due respect, Captain Harrington, you've had all of fifteen minutes to peruse the data," he reminded her. "My colleagues, on the other hand, have put quite a few hours into this analysis."

He jabbed a finger at the memo pad. "I assure you, this isn't just consistent with an Andermani emission spectrum. It is an Andermani emission spectrum."

And emission spectra can't be faked? With an effort, Honor swallowed the retort. Of course emission spectra could be faked. That was in essence what a warship's electronic warfare system did every time it made a superdreadnought look like a harmless little battleship.

But that kind of sleight of hand required a highly sophisticated selection of equipment. And especially when you considered the rest of the analysis . . . 

"I'm simply concerned that perhaps we're being too clever," she said instead. "Or else perhaps not being clever enough."

"Meaning?" Wallace asked, an edge of challenge in his voice.

"It's the number of layers here that concern me," she explained. "We have the Silesian transponder on top—"

"Which is clearly a fake," Wallace cut in.

"Clearly," Honor agreed. Transponder signals, at least, were trivial to gimmick. Half the pirates and three-quarters of the privateers roaming Silesian space were probably running on faked transponder IDs. "But then underneath that we have a layer of emission spectra that do seem to fit with their Silesian merchie ID. It's only when you dig below that that you get to these Andy emissions."

"And your point is . . . ?"

"My point is who's to say that what we've got is two layers of camouflage and one real McCoy?" Honor said. "As opposed to, say, three layers of camouflage with something we still haven't spotted underneath everything else?"

Wallace took a careful breath. "I understand that you're not an expert in these technical matters, Captain," he said. "But my people are; and I can assure you that that is highly unlikely."

"Perhaps not an 'expert' by your standards, Commander," she said just a bit coolly. "I have, however, spent the odd hour or two playing with our own EW from a tac officer's perspective. And as a tac officer, I know that what I'm suggesting isn't exactly impossible, now is it?"

Wallace's lips puckered. "Nothing is impossible, Ma'am," he conceded grudgingly. "Especially not for our EW. But not everyone's capabilities are as good as ours, and we think it extremely unlikely in this instance."

"Regardless, it's a question that won't be resolved until we get a closer look at the ship itself," Trent put in. "And obviously, we need this nailed down as quickly as possible. Which is why, Honor, if you spot this emission spectrum, your new orders are to give complete priority to getting us that closer look."

He leveled a hard look at her. "Complete priority," he repeated.

Honor felt her breath catch in her throat. "Are you saying, Sir, that I'm to abandon my convoy in order to give chase?"

"If necessary, yes," Trent said. "I don't like it any better than you do. But those are your orders."

He glanced at Wallace. "And to be perfectly honest, I agree with them," he added reluctantly. "If the Andies have decided to finally make their move on Silesia and are feeling us out by hitting our merchantmen, we need to know about it. Certainly before we allow relations between Manticore and Haven to deteriorate any further."

"That assumes we have some actual control over that deterioration," Honor murmured.

"True," Trent said. "But that's out of our hands. This—" he gestured to the memo pad "—is not."

"Yes, Sir," Honor said. She still wasn't completely convinced; but then, Trent hadn't invited her aboard for a debate on the subject. She was a Queen's officer, and once she'd been given her orders she was expected to carry them out. "I take it that the Andy connection is to be kept confidential?"

"Absolutely confidential," Trent confirmed with a nod. "As Commander Wallace pointed out, ONI had to do some serious digging in order to coax the Andy spectrum out from under the Silesian camouflage. We don't want word getting back to the Andies that we were able to do that."

"We can still identify the raider by his fake Silesian emission spectrum," Wallace added. "That's all the rest of the crew needs to know about for you to watch for him."

Unless he has a way of changing that, too. Still, as long as she knew about the underlying Andy spectrum, it should still work.

"Understood," Honor said. "I will need to bring my tac officer in on this, though. If we're going up against an Andy warship, he'll need to have some contingency plans prepared."

"No need," Wallace said, his lip twisting into something halfway between a smile and a grimace. "For the next few months, I'm your new tac officer."

Honor blinked. "What's happened to Rafe?"

"He's been temporarily detached for some other duty," Trent said, pulling out a data chip. "Something also connected with ONI, I gather, though they've been closed-mouth as usual about it."

"Really," Honor said, looking at Wallace. But if he knew anything, it wasn't showing in his face.

"I wouldn't worry about Commander Wallace," Trent went on, misinterpreting her look. "He's a perfectly adequate tac officer, as well as being thoroughly briefed on everything happening in Silesia at the moment." He held out the chip. "Here's your copy of the orders."

"Thank you," Honor said, resisting the impulse to point out that it would have been nice to have some advance warning. Apparently, this conversation—and the orders chip—was all the notice she was going to get. "Welcome aboard the Fearless, Commander. I trust you'll be ready to go by the time my convoy is assembled?"

"I'm ready to go now, Ma'am," Wallace said. "And allow me to say I'm looking forward to serving with you."

And to vindicating his belief that that was indeed an Andermani ship out there? Probably. "And I with you, Commander," she said softly. "If there's nothing more, Admiral . . . ?"

"That's all, Honor," Trent said, standing up and offering her his hand. "Good hunting to you."


Commodore Robert Dominick of the People's Navy gave a little grunt as he slid the data pad halfway across the polished conference table. "Satisfactory," he proclaimed. "Most satisfactory. Wouldn't you agree, Captain?"

"Yes, Sir," PN Captain Avery Vaccares said, reaching over and pulling the data pad the rest of the way across the table to himself.

"Yes, indeed," Dominick said, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands across his bulging belly. "Efficiently and professionally done. I think we can be extremely proud of our people, wouldn't you say?"

"Our people performed their duties quite efficiently, Sir," Vaccares said, choosing his words carefully. Yes, the men and women of the PNS Vanguard had indeed carried out their orders well.

But whether their actions had been professional . . . well, that was a different subject entirely. Certainly enemy commerce was a legitimate target in time of war; and certainly there had been enough provocation from the Star Kingdom of Manticore to try the patience of a saint.

But even if everyone for three hundred light-years in all directions could see the dark clouds gathering on the horizon, the bald-faced fact was that there was not a state of war between Haven and the Manties.

Which, in Vaccares's opinion, made what the Vanguard was doing nothing more or less than piracy.

Right down to the piratical tradition of dividing up of the loot.

"I presume your people will want first choice again?" Dominick asked, turning to the third man at the table.

The man they knew only as Charles waved a casual hand. "As a matter of fact, Commodore," he said in that soft, sincere voice that went so well with his genial smile, "I think that this time I'd like to donate our share to be distributed among the crew."

Dominick blinked. "The crew?"

"Certainly," Charles said. "As you so correctly pointed out, they performed their duties well. It seems to me they should occasionally share in the rewards of their effort."

He turned the smile on Vaccares. "Wouldn't you agree, Captain?"

"The crew are servants of the People's Republic of Haven," Vaccares said, not returning the other's smile. "They do their duty, and they receive their pay accordingly. Personally, I feel that offering them a share of—" the booty "—the outcome of that duty is improper."

Dominick's face darkened; but Charles merely smiled some more. "Come now, Captain," he said soothingly. "This is really no different than the prize money traditionally due a crew for the capturing of an enemy ship."

Except that the Manties are not officially our enemies. "You asked for my opinion, and I gave it," Vaccares said, keeping his voice neutral. "But Commodore Dominick is in command here. Whatever he decides is what will be done."

"And I decide the crew deserves some reward," Dominick said gruffly, leaning over the table to snag the memo pad again and angling it so that he and Charles could both look at it. "Let's see . . ."

Vaccares leaned back in his chair, trying not to see his commander as one half of a pair of vultures discussing the best way to divide a particularly juicy sheep carcass.

And once again, as they had so often over the past few months, he found his eyes and thoughts drifting to Charles.

Charles. Medium height, medium build, light brown hair, dark brown eyes. Round expressive face, not handsome but not ugly either. As completely nondescript as it was possible for a human being to be.

Charles. He had no last name, or at least none he'd ever mentioned. He also had no age, no address, no family, and no planet of origin. His accent sounded distinctly Beowulfan, but that didn't help much. Vaccares had known too many people who could turn accents on and off like a set of light switches, and he wouldn't have bet a Dolist's savings account that Charles was letting his true voice show through.

Did the Octagon know anything more about the man? Vaccares fervently hoped so. Operating secretly in Silesian space this way, their necks were stretched out in six different directions. The last thing they needed was the chance that their new ally might suddenly cut the ground out from under them.

On the other hand, perhaps the Octagon didn't really care who Charles was or where he'd come from. Perhaps all it cared about was getting the PRH's hands firmly on the dazzling bit of technological magic he'd dangled under their noses: the magic weapon the Vanguard and her crew had been ordered out here to test.

And from all appearances, that magic weapon was performing exactly as advertised.

Which, for Vaccares, was precisely the crux of the problem.

Charles must have felt the unfriendly eyes on him. Maybe he felt the unfriendly thoughts, too, for all Vaccares knew. Whichever, he glanced up, gave the captain another smile, then returned his attention to the list of the goods Vanguard's crew had looted from their latest Manty victim.

Vaccares rubbed gently at his chin, his eyes still on Charles. Yes, the weapon Charles called the Crippler worked, all right. Eight times in a row now it had completely knocked out its target's impeller drive, leaving it dead in space. And also as advertised, each time it had done so from a range of just over a million kilometers.

And the implications for those dark clouds on the horizon were profound. Classic military doctrine started from the most basic possible assumption: that a warship's impeller wedge was completely and totally impenetrable. Every ship design, every weapon, counter-weapon, and tactical approach—everything started from that point. And up to now it had been an assumption that had always been true.

Up to now.

Charles was a Solly, of course; that much Vaccares had long ago deduced. Only the Solarian League could possibly have the technological expertise to have created something like the Crippler. Only the Solarian League, too, would have the ability to keep something like this so dead a secret that no one had ever even heard a whisper of its existence.

So why was it now being offered to the People's Republic of Haven?

Vaccares knew all the standard answers, or what would be the standard answers if anyone else had been interested in discussing the issue. Haven's governmental public relations spin-masters had been successful in painting the Manties as the bad guys in all this. They'd used the "People" part of the PRN's name to turn the democratic instincts of the Solly man-in-the-street against the Manties; and they'd used the Manties' arrogance and control of the Wormhole Junction to alienate the Solly leadership, who weren't nearly so easily fooled by meaningless words.

But alienated or not, the official Solly stance was for strict neutrality, including a total arms and technology embargo against both Haven and Manticore. True, it leaked like every other embargo throughout the history of mankind, but the Solly leadership had proven themselves reasonably serious about clamping down on those they caught breaking the rules.

And the penalties for selling something with such an awesome potential for destroying the balance of power would be severe indeed.

So what exactly had Hereditary President Harris offered this man that could make those consequences worth risking? Untold wealth? Unbelievable power? A nice villa with a view and a different woman for every day of the month?

His eyes traced along Charles's slightly receding hairline. Given the effects of prolong, his age was as nondescript as everything else about the man. What were his desires? His ambitions? His appetites?

Vaccares didn't know. He just hoped like hell that someone farther up the chain of command did. And that they'd found some leash with which to hold the man firmly in check.

Because with this weapon, the defeat and subjugation of Manticore was absolutely guaranteed . . . unless, that is, Charles took Haven's money or power or women and then turned around and sold the Crippler to the Manties, too.

"All right, fine." Dominick straightened up and pushed the memo pad back toward Vaccares again. "Now. What's our next target, Captain?"

With an effort, Vaccares tucked his concerns carefully out of sight. Surely someone was keeping an eye on this man. "There are two possibilities on the list, Sir," he said. "If we have to choose one, I'd recommend the Doppler's Dance, which we could intercept on its way in to Telmach."

"Doppler's Dance," Dominick repeated, frowning. "That doesn't sound right."

"It isn't," Charles agreed, his forehead creasing at Vaccares. "The ship we want is called the Harlequin, with an intercept point at Tyler's Star."

"That's the one," Dominick nodded. "Sister ship to the Jansci. When is it due, again?"

Vaccares braced himself. "With all due respect, Commodore," he said carefully, "I believe that attacking the Harlequin would be unnecessarily pressing our luck. The more often we hit the Manties, the worse our odds become of being spotted and identified."

"Our odds are doing just fine, Captain," Charles soothed.

"Odds always look fine up to the point where they crumble on you," Vaccares pointed out. "In fact, to be blunt, Commodore, my recommendation would be to ignore the Doppler's Dance, too. I think we should head to the Walther System, get ourselves settled in, and wait for the Jansci to arrive."

"And, what, just let the Harlequin go?" Dominick asked, an edge of contempt creeping into his voice. "This is a strange time to be getting a case of the nerves, Captain."

"The Jansci is the real target, Sir," Vaccares continued doggedly. "The Harlequin's cargo won't be nearly as valuable as hers."

"We don't know that," Dominick disagreed tartly. "We think Jansci has the more valuable half; but all we really know is that together they make up the complete supply run."

"And what if they decide to reroute the Jansci because we've hit the Harlequin?" Vaccares pointed out. "If they shift Jansci to a different convoy, it won't come into Walther from the right direction. Either that, or they'll load it with so many escorts we won't be able to punch through even with the Crippler. Either way, the game will be finished."

"No." Charles was quietly certain. "There's no way for them to get word to Jansci in time to alter her course. And if they can't warn her, they can't shift any warships quickly enough, either."

He shrugged. "Besides, we've already hit a target in Walther. They'll believe their ships will be safe there."

"That's an assumption," Vaccares warned.

"But a valid one," Charles said in that same confident tone. "I know how military people think, Captain; and I'm certain that by now Manticoran Intelligence has a fairly good bead on our past activities. They'll surely have noted our meandering course across Silesian space, and they'll be expecting us to hit Brinkman or Silesia itself. Anywhere but Walther."

"Which is another point in favor of hitting the Harlequin," Dominick added. "An attack at Tyler's Star will help confirm that drift toward Silesia, putting Walther that much farther off their calculations."

"Only if they figure out it was us before the Jansci arrives," Vaccares said. But it was a losing argument, and he knew it. The commodore was so in love with this convoluted plan he and Charles had constructed that he would never believe the Manties wouldn't dance the proper steps to the tune Charles was piping for them.

But it was still his duty to try to inject some caution here. "Regardless, Sir, the fact remains that we'll be risking contact or possibly a direct confrontation for only questionable rewards."

"Wait a minute," Charles said, suddenly cautious. "Confrontation?"

"The Tyler's Star solar research station has been known to play host to Manty warships on occasion," Dominick told him. "Didn't I mention that?"

"No, you did not," Charles said darkly. "I trust you'll be positioning our attack well out of range of both the station and any guests it might have."

"Why?" Dominick demanded. "I thought you just said you were pleased with the crew's performance."

"I said they had performed their duties well," Charles corrected. "They're not ready to try the Crippler against a warship quite yet."

"And how much longer before this elusive bar is reached?" Dominick pressed, starting to sound angry. "First you said it would take five trials against merchies. Next it was seven. Now we've done eight, and you're still not satisfied."

"The ability of this crew to climb a learning curve is not under my control, Commodore," Charles said icily. "A warship's impellers are more complex than those of a merchantman, and that reduces the Crippler's effective range by anywhere from twenty to thirty percent."

Dominick drew himself up in his chair. "May I remind you that the primary goal of this mission is to confirm the effectiveness of this weapon you're so eager to sell us?"

"And may I remind you that President Harris put that decision in my hands?" Charles countered. "Besides, you have confirmed the Crippler's effectiveness. Eight times in a row, in fact."

He lifted a hand, palm toward the commodore. "You'll get your chance at a Manty warship," he said, all calm and quiet and soothing now. "But not until you're ready. I'm sure none of us wants to have the ship we're riding in blown out from under us."

Dominick took a deep breath. "No, of course not," he said, his voice still edged with impatience. "And I'll be the first to admit your plan has worked perfectly so far. But there were three prongs to this mission, and as yet I'm not sure we've achieved even one of them."

"I understand your frustration, Commodore," Charles said. "But when your goal is to take out two birds with one stone, the birds must come together at the right place and the right time. Patience is a necessary virtue."

He waved a hand. "And actually, Bird Number Two has almost certainly already fallen. The Manties will have penetrated our emission disguise by now and concluded an Andermani is running amok among their shipping. Once we've taken the Jansci, they'll be all primed to look the wrong direction for those responsible."

"I hope you're right," Dominick said with a sigh. "Looting Manty merchantmen can make for a satisfying afternoon's diversion, but it's hardly enough to return triumphantly to Haven with."

"Oh, you'll have your triumphant return, Commodore," Charles assured him, smiling tightly. "After all, it's not every day when a PRN officer brings home the weapon that will spell Manticore's death."

Dominick drew himself up again, this time with pride, and Vaccares mentally shook his head. Charles knew the buttons to push, all right. Knew them backwards and forwards, and could hit them with his eyes closed.

Who was this man, anyway?

"Captain, return to your bridge," Dominick said, his voice suddenly sonorous, as if he were speaking for posterity. "Set course for Tyler's Star."

* * *

Cardones had left the Basilisk with Admiral Hemphill's offhanded comment about him someday being snatched up by ONI still ringing in his ears, and with the private conviction that such an assignment was to be avoided like a Peep ship of the wall.

By the time Tech Team Four arrived in the Arendscheldt System, however, he wasn't nearly so sure about the latter.

The ship itself had been his first shock. From the outside, the Shadow had looked just like any of the hundreds of other fast dispatch boats that darted through hyper-space carrying news and messages between the stars. Inside, though, it was another story entirely. Though designed for a crew of twelve, the ship was so crammed with sensors, esoteric surveillance gear, analysis workrooms, and fabrications shops that the seven of them were quite comfortably crowded. Half of the equipment was so new or so secret that he hadn't even heard of it, and better than half looked like it was fresh out of the box. The computer's tac systems alone, with the kind of sifting capability he would have given his right arm for back on the old Fearless, were enough to make his mouth water.

The team itself had been his second shock. The only Intelligence people he'd ever run into before had been the handful of officers who'd given lectures back on Saganami Island, and every one of them had come across as cold and drab. His first impression of this group, as they sat around the Basilisk's briefing table, hadn't done anything to change that image.

But once aboard the Shadow—and, perhaps more importantly, out from under Hemphill's gaze—they had suddenly become human. Right from the start he'd been able to sense a close camaraderie between them, the kind of relationship that had existed among Fearless's bridge crew once Captain Harrington had finally whipped them all into shape. On the surface, the relationship seemed to completely ignore rank, but after a few days of observation he realized that such considerations were indeed still there, forming an unseen foundation for everything else. As familiar and joking as Petty Officers Jackson and Swofford might get with Lieutenant Commander Damana, Cardones could sense an invisible line which neither of them would ever cross. And for his part, Damana scrupulously avoided invoking his own rank when kidding them back.

His third shock had been Captain Sandler.

His impression of her at the conference was that she was as cold and correct as her teammates, except that maybe she talked more than they did. But once again, those first impressions had been deceiving. Correct she undoubtedly was, and as the team's commander she made sure to keep herself aloof from the general verbal horseplay that went on among the others. But that didn't mean she was humorless, or that she hadn't connected solidly with the rest of her people.

And not only with her people, but also with this intruder who had been thrust into their close-knit company. Once they were underway, she personally gave Cardones a tour of the ship, reintroduced him to her team in their now more relaxed mode, and gave him full access to any of the analysis programs and equipment he might wish to use. She'd also sketched out for him the accomplishments of each member of her team, and in the process had subtly made sure to remind each of them of what Cardones and Fearless had pulled off at Basilisk Station. It was done so smoothly that only afterward did it occur to him that the history lesson had been carefully designed to slip him seamlessly into a place in the invisible shipboard hierarchy.

In retrospect, it was a lot like the way Captain Harrington had gone about turning a ship full of resentful, sullen misfits into an efficient, coordinated fighting force. And as the light-years disappeared behind them and he got to know her better, he realized there was a lot more about Captain Sandler that reminded him of Captain Harrington.

Her competence, for starters. Like Harrington, Sandler seemed to know everything about her ship. Not as well as the designated experts, perhaps, but well enough to keep up to speed on whatever the others were doing and to be able to offer informed suggestions. She was smart and quick-witted, too, able to pull together apparently unconnected bits of information in a way no one else had gotten around to seeing yet.

But most of all, he could see Captain Harrington's reflection in the way Sandler cared for her people. And as he'd seen once, that made all the difference when the excrement hit the fan.

Which, he realized as they eased alongside the darkened, silent hulk that had once been the Manticoran merchant ship Lorelei, might be happening very soon.

"All right," Sandler said as the boarding party finished the checks on their hardsuits. "Jack, you and Jessie keep a close eye on the sensors. If Rafe's analysis is right, they might have someone lying doggo out there waiting to take a crack at us."

Even through his nervousness, Cardones felt a trickle of pleasure at Sandler's mention of his name. It hadn't been his analysis alone—certainly Sandler and Damana had each had a hand in it—but it was typical of her to give her subordinates credit where it was deserved. And Cardones was the one who'd first noticed that the mysterious lad with the super grav lance seemed to be focusing on high-tech cargo shipments.

If that was true, and not just an illusion created by too small a statistical sample, a small ship loaded with top-of-the-line ONI gadgetry might be too good a target for them to pass up. Indeed, Damana had speculated that a ship like the Shadow might actually be the true prize the raiders were going for, and the destroyed merchies merely the bait.

But if Damana was worried about that possibility, it didn't show in his voice. "Don't worry, Skipper, we're on it," he called back from the command deck where he and Jessica Hauptman were standing watch. "We can have the wedge and sidewalls back up in nothing flat if we need to."

"Right." Sandler swept her gaze around the group. "All right, people. Let's go take a look."

She led the way through the hatch, handling her SUT thruster pack like it was something she'd been issued at birth. Pampas followed, with Swofford and Jackson moving up close behind him. Cardones, as the second senior officer of the party, brought up the rear.

It was an eerie passage. Every ship Cardones had ever seen before had been manned by somebody, either its regular personnel or a refitting shipyard team or at least a skeleton crew. Some signs of activity, of a human presence, had always been present.

But the Lorelei had none of that. It was floating dead in space, alone and deserted, like a giant metal corpse.

Like a giant metal tomb.

He felt his flesh creeping beneath his suit. He'd seen dead bodies before, certainly, most recently those of his friends and shipmates aboard the Fearless. But there was something different about a military crew, somehow, with men and women who'd been trained for battle and had gone down fighting against an enemy of the Queen. The Lorelei's crew, in contrast, had had neither the training or the weapons.

And if Hemphill and the ONI analysts were right, by the time their attackers arrived, they hadn't even had the protection of an impeller wedge. Or any way at all to escape.

"Like sitting ducks," someone murmured.

"Yes," Sandler said grimly.

Only then did Cardones realize that the first voice had been his.


The carnage was as bad as he'd expected. To his mild surprise, though, his reaction turned out to be not nearly as bad as he'd feared.

For that, he knew, he had Sandler to thank. Instead of leaving him hanging, with nothing to do but stare at the floating bodies of the merchantman's crew and dwell on how they'd died, she had immediately ordered him to go with Pampas to examine the forward impeller nodes. At the same time, she'd sent Swofford and Jackson to the stern to look at the ones there.

Which, of course, left the grisly task of examining the dead solely to herself. Something else, Cardones thought as he and Pampas headed toward the bow, that Captain Harrington would have done.

The bow nodes looked just about the way impeller nodes always looked.

Pampas obviously saw the same thing. "No obvious damage," he reported as he drifted in front of the first node, fingering its surface like a phrenologist looking for bumps. "Guess we'll have to go deeper. Pop the tool kit, Rafe, and hand me a universal socket."

They stayed aboard the Lorelei for sixteen hours, approximately two hours past the point where Cardones's own brain began to fog over. Pride alone dictated that he hide his fatigue as he continued to assist Pampas, but apparently even ONI's supermen were subject to the same frailties as standard-issue mortals. As the last of those sixteen hours crawled past, the muffled curses at dropped tools or fumbled components grew steadily more frequent, until Sandler finally bowed to the inevitable and ordered everyone back to the Shadow for a hot meal and seven hours of sleep.

Seven hours and fifteen minutes later, they were back aboard the Lorelei.

And after twelve more hours aboard her, they had it all. Or at least as much they were going to get.

"There's not a lot I can tell you yet, Skipper," Pampas said tiredly as they gathered around the wardroom table with their steaming cups of coffee or tea or cocoa. "Not until we finish tapping into the rest of the diagnostic jacks and can build a complete system map. But the one thing that is clear is that all of them went down together."

"The forward and after groups both?" Damana asked.

"All of them," Pampas confirmed. "That alone tells us something new is going on here."

"Unless that's how a grav lance normally affects things," Jackson pointed out.

Sandler looked at Cardones. "Rafe?" she invited.

"It wasn't the way our grav lance behaved," Cardones said, shaking his head. "It didn't affect the Q-ship's impeller nodes at all, for one thing. And even in destroying their sidewall, it only took down the starboard side, the side nearest us."

"As far as you know," Hauptman put in pointedly. "Your sensors were pretty far gone by then, weren't they?"

"Yes, but they weren't so far gone that we couldn't get ranging readings as we pumped out our energy torpedoes," Cardones told her. "And the post-battle analysis of the destruction pattern clearly indicated that her port sidewall was still up when the torpedoes started ripping the guts out of her."

"Makes sense," Swofford murmured. "Just having that much metal between sidewall generators would make it hard for even a concentrated grav pulse to take out everything at once."

"Which makes this all the more ominous," Pampas said. "Something coming from the outside shouldn't be able to knock out every single node at the same time like it did."

"On the other hand, it's not like the nodes are running independently, either," Sandler pointed out. "In fact, aren't they pretty solidly interconnected, at least on a software and control level?"

"Right, but only on a software and control level," Pampas said. "You could bring down all the nodes at once by blowing the computer or frying the control lines, at least theoretically. But that's not what happened here. At least," he added, lifting his eyebrows questioningly at Swofford, "that's not what happened in the forward nodes."

"It's not what happened in the after ones, either," Swofford confirmed. "We took a good look at the control system before we started plugging into the diagnostics. None of the lines were fried."

"There is, of course, one other possibility," Cardones spoke up.

All eyes turned to him. "Yes?" Sandler prompted.

Silently, Cardones cursed the fatigue-driven fogginess that had made him open his mouth. It was such a ridiculous idea. . . . "It's a really slim possibility," he hedged. "I'm not sure it's even worth bringing up."

"Well, we won't know that until we hear it, will we?" Damana said reasonably. "Come on, we're too tired for Twenty Questions."

Cardones gave up. "I was just wondering if it was possible for the nodes to have been blown from the inside," he said hesitantly. "I mean, as . . . sabotage."

He had expected snorts of derision or at the very least a matching set of skyward-rolled eyeballs. But to his surprise—and relief—neither happened. "Interesting," Damana commented. "Seems to me there's one tiny problem with it, though."

"It would be tricky to pull off—" Cardones admitted.

"I wasn't referring to the technical difficulties," Damana cut him off gently. "I was thinking more about the fact that all the members of the crew have been accounted for out there."

Cardones grimaced. He'd felt vaguely like a fool even before bringing it up. Now, at least, he knew the specific parameters of that feeling. "Oh. Right."

"It was a good idea, though," Damana said encouragingly.

"And not one I'm ready to toss out with the bath water quite yet, actually," Sandler said, sounding thoughtful. "True, the number and gender of bodies match up with the official ship's manifest; but who's to say they didn't take on a passenger or extra hand somewhere along the way?"

"Wouldn't they have logged it if they had?" Jackson asked.

"They're supposed to," Hauptman said. "But if someone knew his way around a computer well enough to bring down the impeller, he'd certainly know how to edit a few log entries. My problem is why anyone would bother doing such a thing in the first place."

"Well, there's the cargo, for starters," Jackson said dryly. "Worth—what did we decide? Somewhere in the neighborhood of forty-three million?"

"Sure, but why cripple the ship?" Hauptman said. "If you're going to shut down the impeller, why not do it in such a way that you can bring it up again afterward? That way you can have the cargo and the ship."

"Unless it's a gigantic disinformation scheme," Sandler said. "We've already speculated that someone might have staged these attacks for the purpose of getting their hands on an ONI task ship."

"Which didn't happen," Damana pointed out.

"Yet," Pampas reminded him.

"If they haven't hit us by now, they're not coming," Damana insisted. "But if you're suggesting this is a variation of that scenario, Skipper, I can't see the point. What would they hope to gain?"

"Actually, the Captain may be on to something," Swofford said, rubbing meditatively at his lower lip. "Suppose we brought back a report saying that someone was able to do thus-and-so to a ship's impellers from a million klicks away. What do you suppose BuWeaps' response would be?"

"Ask for a bigger budget," Pampas murmured.

A slightly strained chuckle ran around the table. BuWeaps' appetite for money was legendary. "Right," Swofford said. "I meant after that."

"Well, obviously, they'd start a crash research project," Jackson said. "They'd first try to figure out what this theoretical weapon had done, then how to reproduce the effect, then how to devise a counter against it, and then how to build one for ourselves."

"All the while draining money and manpower from every other project in the pipeline," Damana said, nodding slowly. "It does make a certain amount of lopsided sense, doesn't it?"

"Especially when the whole thing drags on without anyone able to even figure out how the thing works," Sandler said. "A nice piece of distraction, especially with us in the process of gearing up for a war with the Peeps."

"I don't know," Pampas said, gazing down at the table. "Sounds too complicated for a Peep operation, and I can't see who else would bother. I'm still not convinced there really isn't something new out there."

"Neither am I," Sandler assured him. "But at this point it's worth brainstorming all possibilities."

"Well, in that case, you might as well throw this one into the hopper, too," Hauptman said. "It occurs to me that, along with creating a distraction for BuWeaps, this could also push the government into leaning even harder on the Sollies."

"Wait a minute," Jackson frowned. "Where'd the Sollies come into this?"

"No, she's right," Damana agreed. "I mean, where else could this superweapon have come from?"

"And pushing the Sollies any harder than we already have over the leaks in their embargo might goad them into getting their backs up," Hauptman said. "Maybe to the point of scrapping it altogether."

"Boy, there's a thought," Pampas muttered. "A Peep navy armed with Solly weapons."

"All the more reason to get this nailed down as quickly as possible," Sandler said. "Jack, did Arendscheldt Station send you a package while we were out?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Damana said. "I looked it over, and it looks like our next port of call will be Tyler's Star."


"Seventeen days," Damana said. "A little tight, but we should be able to get there in time for the necessary preparations."

"Excuse me?" Cardones spoke up. "Is there something here I'm missing?"

"Sorry," Sandler apologized. "I forget sometimes that we've got uninitiated company aboard. We've now learned all we can—or at least we will have learned all we can once we get a full system map drawn up—from looking at the aftermath of an attack. What we'd really like next would be to actually witness the weapon in action so that we can get some real-time data on it."

"That would definitely be nice," Cardones agreed. "Are you telling me we have the raider's timetable?"

"In a sense, yes," Sandler said. "People tend to do things in patterns, though they're sometimes not even aware of it. It turns out that the ONI unit in our Arendscheldt consulate has a little computer program that tracks patterns like this."

"With only seven data points?" Cardones asked, blinking with surprise. "That's one amazing program."

"We like it," Sandler said dryly. "At any rate, it says the best guess for the next target is Tyler's Star in seventeen days. So that's where we go."

"Mm," Cardones said, turning to Damana. This still sounded wrong, somehow, but he was hardly in a position to argue the point. "And the preparations you mentioned?"

Damana smiled. "You'll see," he said. "And as a tactical man, I think you're going to like it."


"The last merchie just came out of hyper-space," Lieutenant Joyce Metzinger reported from Fearless's com station. "Reconfiguring her wedge now."

"Group's forming up nicely," Lieutenant Commander Andreas Venizelos added, peering at his monitors. "Looks like we've got a clear run straight in to Zoraster."

"Good," Honor said, looking over the bank of monitors deployed around her command chair. The six ships were indeed shambling into their positions in the designated formation: five merchantmen, plus the heavy cruiser HMS Fearless.

Which was currently pretending very hard to be a sixth merchantman. Honor had ordered their impeller wedge set to low power, imitating that of a civilian ship, and they were running with the ID transponder of a Manticoran merchantman. To anyone out there with prying eyes, they should look like just another small herd of nervous sheep huddling together for mutual protection against the wolves prowling the starways.

The question now was whether or not there were any prying eyes out there. "Commander Wallace?" she called, swiveling toward the tac station.

"Nothing, Ma'am," Wallace reported, an edge of frustration lurking under the even tones of his voice. This was the third stop the convoy had made, and they had yet to see even an ordinary pirate, let alone their alleged Andermani raider.

Honor could understood Wallace's frustration, and could even sympathize with it. But if the fish weren't biting, the fish weren't biting, and there wasn't anything she could do about it. She swiveled back toward the helm display—

"We've got a wedge!" Wallace snapped suddenly. "Coming up from standby; bearing one-one-eight by oh-one-five."

"Confirmed," Venizelos said. "And he's definitely hauling—" he broke off, glancing at Wallace "—he's pulling some serious acceleration," he said instead. "I make it four hundred ten gees."

Four hundred gees, with the slowest member of their convoy able to pull barely two hundred. "I presume he's on an intercept course?" she asked.

"Yes, Ma'am," Lieutenant Commander Stephen DuMorne called from the astrogator's station. "Vector's firming up . . . okay. At present course and speed, he'll hit the edge of our missile envelope in seventeen minutes."

Honor studied the plot DuMorne had sent over to her astrogation screen. The bogy was coming in hard, all right. But given the relative positions and vectors, he still had time to break off without engaging if he got spooked.

They would just have to make sure that didn't happen. "Joyce, signal the other ships on whisker," she ordered. "Plan Alpha. Then sound battle stations."

"Yes, Ma'am," Metzinger said, and got busy at her board.

And now came the really crucial question. "Mr. Wallace?" she asked.

The other was hunched stiffly over his board, and Honor found herself holding her breath. If they really had found their Andy raider, first time out of the box . . . 

But then Wallace straightened up, and even before he spoke she could tell from his body language that they'd come up empty. "According to the Silesian emission spectrum," he said, just slightly emphasizing the word Silesian, "it looks like we've got something on the order of a small destroyer."

"Convoy's breaking apart," Venizelos reported. "Alpha looks good."

Honor nodded. Plan Alpha had been carefully tailored to give any approaching pirates the one thing that invariably spurred them to greater effort: signs of panic among their victims. The faster merchantmen were starting to pull away from the group, pushing their impellers and inertial compensators to the limit as if trying to beat the pirate to his planned intercept point. Running for it, and to hell with the slower and more vulnerable members of the convoy.

It was, unfortunately, an all-too-common response, despite the fact that it was ultimately self-destructive. Not only did splitting up ruin any chance for a convoy to use their wedges for mutual protection, but it also strung the ships out into a space-going shish kabob, presenting the raider with a series of bite-sized morsels from which he could choose whichever looked the tastiest.

And as the convoy reacted exactly as the pirate expected, the pirate now unknowingly returned the favor. His vector shifted slightly to try to outrun the lead merchies, and he pulled out another fifteen gees of acceleration he'd been holding in reserve. He smelled fresh blood, all right, and he was charging full-bore in for the kill.

Unfortunately for him, the whole thing was a fraud. Some of the merchies were indeed pulling ahead in response to Honor's order, but it was a carefully plotted and controlled maneuver, one that would let them drop back into their original formation with only a few minutes' notice.

"Update," Venizelos called. "Bogy will now hit the edge of our envelope in twelve minutes. Point of no escape in fourteen."

"Chief Killian, ease us through the pack toward him," Honor ordered the helmsman. "Mr. Wallace, give me a targeting solution, but keep the active sensors off-line. All crews, stand by ECM and point defense, and be ready to bring the wedge to full strength."

A watchful silence descended on Fearless's bridge. Honor listened to the quiet updates and watched as the red area on her tactical display shrank steadily toward nothingness. It was already nearly gone; and when it disappeared, so would any chance the pirate would have to evade contact. She checked her readiness status boards, feeling the usual slight pre-action quiver in her stomach and thankful she'd taken the precaution of putting Nimitz into his life-support pod in her quarters before they'd dropped out of hyper. With a pirate lurking this close to their exit point, she wouldn't have had time to run him down to her quarters by the time they'd spotted him.

Of course, James MacGuiness, her loyal steward, was perfectly capable of handling that job himself, and she could certainly have entrusted the 'cat to his care. But it was better all around that she'd been able to do it herself—

"Missile away!" Venizelos barked abruptly.

"Where?" Honor demanded, searching her displays. There it was, scorching away from the pirate.

"Well away forward," Venizelos said. "It's going to pass a hundred thousand kilometers in front of Flagstad's bow."

Honor felt her eyebrows lifting as she confirmed the missile's vector for herself. Most pirates didn't bother with anything as civilized as warning shots. "Are you getting anything from his ID transponder, Joyce?" she asked.

"Nothing useful," Metzinger said. "It reads out as the Locksley, with a Zoraster registry, but there's no ship of that name in our files." She paused for a moment, listening to her earbud. "He's calling on us to drop our wedges and prepare to be boarded," she added. "He claims to be with the Logan Freedom Fighters, and pledges we won't be harmed if we cooperate."

Venizelos snorted. "Cute. And, of course, your average merchie wouldn't know the Logan group doesn't operate in the Zoraster system."

"Actually, they may have just started," Wallace spoke up. "One of Logan's top lieutenants has been talking with the Zoraster Freemen about an alliance. They may have cut a deal."

"You're kidding," Venizelos said, frowning at him. "Where did you hear that?"

Wallace gave him a wry smile. "Try reading the ONI dispatches sometime," he said. "It's all in there."

Venizelos's mouth twitched. "I guess I'll have to start skimming them a little slower," he conceded. "I don't know, though. Boarding merchies sounds more like a pirate maneuver than something freedom fighters would do."

"Especially when their fight is supposed to be with the Silesian Navy, not Manticoran merchantmen," Honor agreed. "Joyce, has he given any explanation for his demand?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Metzinger said, her voice suddenly grim. "He says they're looking for a shipment of shredder pulser darts. Apparently there's a special order on its way to the Ellyna Valley government."

"Yuck," Venizelos muttered under his breath.

"Agreed," Honor said with a disgusted feeling of her own. Pulser darts were lethal enough without adding in the shredding capability that could take out whole clusters of people with a single shot. All civilized nations, including the Star Kingdom, had banned them long ago. So, for that matter, had the Silesian Confederacy, at least on paper.

Unfortunately, there were still people out there who had no qualms about using them, which was why there were still people out there manufacturing the damned things.

"Tell them we don't have anything like that aboard any of our ships," she instructed Metzinger.

"Yes, Ma'am." Metzinger turned back to her board.

"I guess you can't blame them for not wanting to end up on the receiving end of shredders," Venizelos commented.

"Next question being whether they plan to destroy them if they find them, or simply load 'em in their own guns," DuMorne pointed out.

"They'll destroy them," Wallace told him. "The Logan group has consistently denounced the use of street-sweeper weapons, and there's never been a report of their own people using them. Any deal they made with the Freemen would have required that same restraint."

"So what exactly is our official stance toward these people?" Venizelos asked. "The usual hands-off thing, unless and until they threaten our shipping, at which point we can slap them down as hard as we want?"

"Basically," Honor said, turning back to Metzinger. "Joyce?"

"He apologizes, but says they have to check for themselves, Ma'am," the com officer reported. "He again promises we won't be harmed unless we do something foolish."

"He's certainly a polite sort of fellow," Venizelos commented. "So how hard are we going to slap him, Skipper?"

Honor studied her displays. The Locksley was well within the no-escape area now, and apparently still unaware that he was facing anything other than six helpless merchantmen. At this point, Fearless could basically do whatever she wanted to him.

And yet . . . 

"Mr. Wallace, do you happen to know how well-supplied Logan's group is?" she asked.

"I don't know the numbers, Ma'am," Wallace said slowly. "A little better than the average Silesian rebel, probably, but not that much better."

"Can they afford to throw away missiles just for the fun of it?" she asked, though she was pretty sure she knew the answer.

"Not a chance," Wallace said firmly. "Not even the relatively piddling one he tossed across our vector."

Honor nodded, her mind made up. The Locksley had spent a valuable missile trying to get the convoy to stop without any further fighting. That meant he was either exactly who he said he was, with the more or less peaceful intentions he claimed to have, or else a pirate with the kind of chutzpah even a politician might envy.

"All right," she said. "Joyce, get a camera ready on me. Andy, when I cue you, bring up the wedge and sidewalls and paint him with the active sensors."

She settled herself in her chair and made sure her uniform tunic was straight. This should prove interesting. "He's hailing again, Ma'am," Metzinger said.

Honor nodded. "Put him through."

The screen before her cleared, and the face of a young man appeared, his cheeks tired and sunken, his eyes blazing with the fire of zealots and True Believers everywhere. "—one last time, Manticoran ships," he was saying. "If you don't drop your wedges—"

He broke off abruptly, his bright eyes goggling as he belatedly recognized her uniform. "This is Captain Harrington of Her Majesty's Ship Fearless," Honor said calmly into the stunned silence coming from the com. "I'm sorry; I didn't catch that?"

And with her final word she flicked a finger at Venizelos.

All around her, the bridge displays altered as Fearless suddenly surged to full combat readiness. The young man on the com display jerked like he'd been stung, his eyes darting to his own off-camera monitors, and Honor could hear the faint sounds of gasped consternation coming from the command deck around him.

"I've made my half of the introductions," she prompted. "Your turn."

With what appeared to be a supreme effort of will, the man pulled his gaze back to the com screen. "My name is Iliescu," he said, his cheeks looking more sunken than ever. "I—all right, Captain, you've got us. What now?"

"You've threatened my convoy, Mr. Iliescu," Honor reminded him coolly. "Verbally, as well as by putting a missile into space against us."

She watched his face as he opened his mouth, probably to protest that that had been a warning shot. But he subsided with the words unsaid. She knew that, and he knew that she knew it.

"All of which means that I would be within my legal rights to blow you to scrap," she continued. "Or do you see it differently?"

Iliescu took a deep breath. "I see that the use of shredder darts is an attack on all civilized human beings," he said. "I see that they're illegal, but that they're still being used by petty tyrants desperate to hold onto their power and their privileges. What would you do, Captain, if they were being used against your people?"

"We're not talking about me," Honor reminded him. "Do you have any evidence that there are Manticoran ships carrying these things?"

His lip twitched. "We don't know who's bringing them," he admitted. "All we know that they're supposed to be coming in soon, from a supplier on Creswell."

Honor nodded. Creswell had been the convoy's last port of call. So that was why Iliescu had been lying in wait in this particular spot. "So what are you planning to do? Stop every convoy coming from that direction until you find the shredders?"

Iliescu drew himself up. "If necessary," he said with stubborn dignity.

"All by yourself?"

"We have three other ships on loan from the Logan Freedom Fighters," he said. "We're running this in shifts."

"Who's your contact with Logan?"

The question seemed to take Iliescu off guard. "What?"

"I want the name of your contact," Honor repeated. "The one who negotiated the alliance with your Zoraster Freemen."

Iliescu's eyes were bulging again. "You're very well informed, Captain," he said. "I don't know if I should . . ."

"There's no deal possible unless you convince me, Mr. Iliescu," Honor warned quietly. "As far as I can tell from here, you could still just be another pirate with a gift for glib."

Iliescu swallowed hard. "His name is Bokusu. Simon Bokusu."

Honor glanced at Wallace, caught the other's fractional nod. "All right," she said, looking back at Iliescu. "Under the circumstances, I'm going to give you this one free pass. But from now on you leave Manticoran ships alone, or there will be trouble. Is that understood?"

"Understood," the other said. "What about the shredders?"

"None of the ships in my convoy are carrying them," Honor told him. "You have my word on that."

Iliescu hesitated, then nodded. "All right. Iccgood-bye, Captain."

His image vanished as he broke contact. "Secure from battle stations," Honor ordered. "Signal the convoy to return to formation."

"Well, that was interesting," Venizelos commented. "Also pretty disgusting. What kind of a sick animal uses shredders anymore?"

"You heard the man," DuMorne said. "Petty tyrants desperate to hold onto power and privilege."

"And we have to look the other way," Metzinger murmured.

"Just one of the many fun things about duty in Silesia," Venizelos said. "Skipper, do you want to leave the wedge at full power?"

"We might as well, since the masquerade's blown anyway," Honor said. "And as long as the active sensors are on line again, let's give the area between us and the planet a good, hard look."

"Yes, Ma'am," Venizelos said. Honor turned back to her tactical plot, watching the ships of her convoy shuffling back toward their original flight formation. The maneuvers were nowhere near military-precise, but not bad for merchantmen. Maybe there ought to be a course on this sort of thing at the Merchant Fleet Academy.

There was a beep from Venizelos's board. "Skipper, we've got another wedge coming up," he announced, frowning at his displays. "Off to port, about three million klicks out."

"Course is running skew across the ecliptic," DuMorne added. "Looks like she was just coasting through the outer system."

"We have an ID?" Honor asked.

"She's reading as an Andermani warship," Wallace said, his voice suddenly taut.

"Transponder identifies her as the IANS Neue Bayern," Metzinger confirmed.

"Neue Bayern," Venizelos repeated, punching keys on his console. "Battlecruiser, Mendelssohn class, massing just under nine hundred thousand tons. No sign of anyone else in her vicinity."

"Any idea what she's doing out here?" Honor asked, swiveling to look at Wallace. The other was working his board, his eyes intense but uncertain.

With good reason, she realized as she ran down the same logic track he was probably following. A lone Andermani ship, and one that had apparently been lying doggo as a pirate might, could very possibly be their raider.

Except that it wasn't fitting the rest of the ONI profile. A battlecruiser was too big, for one thing, and it wasn't running either the Silesian ID or the camouflaging surface emission spectrum.

On the other hand, considering the poor quality of the data on which it was based, the profile itself might not be all that accurate. Besides which, who was to say that the leopard might not occasionally trade in his spots for stripes?

"Well, if she's on escort duty, she seems to have misplaced her convoy, Ma'am," Venizelos observed. "And as for her vector . . . Stephen, what do you make of it?"

"We don't know what she was doing before we came in, of course," DuMorne pointed out. "But her current vector matches nicely with a straight-line course from Tyler's Star to Schiller. It almost looks like she's spent the past few days drifting her way across the system.

"Like someone hunting pirates?" Venizelos suggested.

Or perhaps something a little more personal? Honor caught Wallace's eye as he glanced up and lifted her eyebrows in silent question. He cocked an eyebrow of his own and gave a small shrug.

So at least they were agreed about their basic uncertainty. The Neue Bayern might well be out hunting a rogue Andy raider. On the other hand, she might be here to give that same raider tactical or logistical support.

"I hope she wasn't trying to sneak up on Iliescu's roadblock," Venizelos mused. "We pretty well ruined that one if she was."

"She'll get over it," Honor said, coming to a decision. Whatever this particular Andy was doing out here, she probably knew about the raider. Given that, it wouldn't hurt to let her know the Royal Navy was also in on the game. "Joyce, open a channel," she instructed. "Put it up when you get it."

"Yes, Ma'am." Metzinger keyed her board, and Honor silently began counting out the seconds. At the Neue Bayern's distance there was a twenty-second delay just for the signal's round trip, plus whatever time her captain took to decide whether or not he felt like talking to any Manticorans today.

The count was up to ninety-four seconds when the com screen came up, revealing a heavy-jowled man with close-cropped hair and full lips that seemed to be settled in a perpetual frown. "This is Captain Lanfeng Grubner of the IANS Neue Bayern," he said, his voice gruff and sounding like he wasn't at all happy about being disturbed. But maybe that was just his heavy German accent. "What do you want, Fearless?"

"This is Captain Harrington of the Fearless," Honor said, determined not to be intimidated by either Grubner's attitude or the fact that his ship outmassed and outgunned hers by a factor of three. "I wonder if I might impose on you for a brief conversation on a topic of mutual interest."

She waited as the twenty seconds ticked past. "And what topic might that be?" Grubner asked.

"I'd rather not discuss it on an open signal," Honor said. "If you could back off on some of your acceleration, I could bring a pinnace to within whisker laser range."

"Impossible," Grubner said flatly. "I'm on an important assignment for my Emperor. I have no time to exchange pleasantries with foreign naval officers."

"Not even if the conversation was related to your assignment?" Honor suggested.

Grubner smiled thinly, a neat trick with lips as thick as his were. "But we shall never know whether it was or not, shall we? Good day to you, Captain—"

Abruptly he broke off, his eyebrows drawing suddenly together. "Harrington," he said, his voice suddenly thoughtful. "Captain Honor Harrington?"

"Yes, Sir," Honor said.

The twenty-second delay seemed a lot longer this time. "Well, well," Grubner said. "So you are the heroine of Basilisk Station."

"I wouldn't put it quite that way, Sir," Honor said, feeling her cheeks warming. She'd more or less resigned herself to the borderline awe she still got occasionally from her own people. But the same thing coming from a foreigner was a new and freshly embarrassing situation. "But yes, it was my ship and my people who pulled that off."

"Indeed," Grubner said, nodding slowly. "Well. This puts a different light on things. I would be pleased if you would join me aboard the Neue Bayern for the conversation you requested."

He smiled suddenly. "And, of course, I would like to show you proper Andermani hospitality, as well. Shall we say dinner this evening? Or whatever the next meal is your ship's clock is set for, of course."

Honor blinked, the sudden change in Grubner's attitude throwing her off-balance like a well-executed aikido move. "I'm very grateful for your offer, Captain," she managed. "But I don't wish to draw you off your schedule any longer than necessary."

He waved a hand negligently. "My schedule is not that rigid, Captain. And Imperial Naval orders always allow for unexpected events and opportunities."

Opportunities . . . "In that case, Captain, I would be honored to accept your invitation." Honor glanced at the ship's clock. "And dinner would be fine."

"Excellent, Captain," Grubner said. As near as Honor could tell, he sounded genuinely pleased. "Shall I send a pinnace for you, or would you prefer to bring your own? Mine is most likely faster," he added with a clear touch of pride, "and almost certainly more comfortable."

"Thank you, Captain," Honor said. "I appreciate the offer, but I'll come in my own. That way you'll be able to get under way again as soon as our meeting is finished."

"As you wish, Captain," Grubner said. "I will expect to see you at your convenience. Neue Bayern out."

The display blanked. Honor took a careful breath; and only as she glanced around did she notice that every eye on the bridge was pointed at her.

"What?" she asked, trying to sound casual. "Haven't you ever seen someone invited to dinner before?"

Venizelos found his voice first. "It must have been the German accent," he said, his voice studiously bland. "Though I've got to say, Skipper, that inviting you aboard wasn't what I expected him to do . . . until he caught your name."

"You seem to have picked up a new fan, all right, Ma'am," Metzinger agreed. "How many million does that make now?"

Honor shook her head. "I swear, when this is all over I'm going to change my name to Smith," she threatened. "I should have done it months ago."

"Oh, I don't know, Skipper," DuMorne offered. "Andermani food's really pretty good, they say. And some of their wines are excellent."

"I'll keep that in mind," Honor said dryly. "Joyce, call the boat bay and have my pinnace readied."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"You're not going alone, are you, Ma'am?" Wallace asked.

There was something in his tone that tickled the hairs unpleasantly on the back of Honor's neck. For the briefest second she wondered if he knew something about the Andermani she didn't. Something, perhaps, about hidden treachery beneath the surface courtesy?

But following a split second behind the reflexive xenophobic paranoia came the truth. It wasn't that Wallace knew something she didn't. It was that there were things he wanted to know.

She swiveled her chair to look at him, and there was no mistaking the eagerness in his eyes. A Naval Intelligence officer, poised to get a first-hand look at an Andermani warship. A simple cajoling of his captain, he was probably thinking, and he would be on his way to an intelligence coup that might put his career on the express track.

And in fact, she could very probably accommodate him if she chose. Captain Grubner hadn't placed any stipulations on his invitation; if she showed up with a whole entourage tagging behind her, she doubted he would refuse them entry to his ship.

But at the same time, she knew that doing so would be a betrayal of his trust and the unspoken yet clear intent of his offer. Especially if that entourage included an ONI officer.

And given the steadily worsening situation with Haven, it didn't seem like a good idea for a Queen's officer to go out of her way to annoy an Andermani captain. Especially one who had already taken the initiative in extending his hospitality.

"I don't think I'll be in any danger over there," she told Wallace, deliberately misreading the true intent of his question. "Besides, all of you will be busy right here."

Wallace frowned. "Doing what, Ma'am?"

"Checking out our convoy," Honor told him. "I want you and Commander Venizelos to assemble some inspection teams to go across to each of the ships. Get Scotty Tremaine and Horace Harkness to help, Andy—they'll know the right people to pick for the teams."

"What kind of inspection?" Venizelos asked. "What are we looking for, Skipper?"

"Shredder darts, of course," Honor said grimly. "I gave Iliescu my word that we weren't carrying them. Before we hit orbit, I want to know if I lied to him."


The Shadow had reached the hyper limit at the edge of the Tyler's Star system and had started its long trip inward by the time the three techs finally finished their analysis.

"Boiled down to the basics, what seems to have happened is that all the nodes went into simultaneous overload," Pampas said, gesturing to the exploded-view holo hovering over the wardroom table. "There were a whole series of blown junction points in each one, tracking right along the control lines."

"But the lines themselves weren't simply fried?" Sandler asked.

"No," Pampas said. "As I said, it looks more like an overload at these critical points."

"But an overload from where?" Damana asked. "There shouldn't be any way to get that much voltage in there. At least, not from the inside."

"Actually, we have come up with a couple of ideas," Pampas said. "They're both pretty shaky, but so far they're all we've got." He gestured across the table to Swofford. "Nathan?"

"The possible culprit is here," Swofford said, manipulating the controls. The exploded view vanished, replaced by a larger-scale technical schematic of a merchantman's power and control system. Another touch, and a pair of lines were highlighted at a point where they briefly paralleled each other. "We've got a control line running right up against one of the main power lines for about ten centimeters. If we somehow got a bleed-through of enough current, it could conceivably pop the junction points we found."

"Without burning the insulation?" Hauptman asked. "Or was it burned?"

"There weren't any scorch marks that we could find," Swofford admitted. "That's what makes it shaky. The other possibility is even shakier: something called Jonquil tunneling, where RF electric fields twist in such a way that you get quantum tunneling of electrons between the power and control lines."

"That would eliminate the intact-insulation problem," Pampas added. "Problem is, we can't come up with any way for the fields to twist that way without it showing up elsewhere in the power system."

"What about Rafe's scenario?" Damana asked. "The saboteur-in-our-midst thing?"

"Possible," Pampas said. "But even trickier to pull off than we first thought. In order to take down all the forward nodes simultaneously, our saboteur would have had to open up the system somewhere downstream of the control box but upstream of where the control lines branch off to the different nodes. There aren't a lot of places you can do that, and all of them are either in sight of the command crew or out in the open where anyone might happen by. That means he'd have to either distract an entire watch crew or else come up with a logical reason to be poking around access panels."

"And he'd have to do it for both the fore and aft nodes," Jackson put in. "The lines go off in different directions."

"Right," Pampas said. "Once into the wiring, he'd have to splice in a power boost with just enough juice to kill the junction points but not enough to affect anything else."

"And, of course, he would have had to sync both boosts to get the fore and aft nodes to go down together?" Sandler suggested.

"Right," Pampas said. "Then, after the boosters had done their job, he'd have to go in and take them out again."

"Though he would have had other cleanup to do at that point, anyway," Hauptman reminded them. "Erasing his presence from the logs, for starters."

"And of course, the rest of the crew would probably have been dead by then," Damana said.

"You said these were our choices if it was done from the inside," Sandler said. "What about from the outside?"

Pampas shrugged uncomfortably. "Then we're talking Admiral Hemphill's magic grav lance," he said. "Presumably if you boost a lance's power high enough, you could overload the impeller wedge in such a way that it would back-feed and blow out the junction points. But to pack that kind of power into a ship is beyond any theory I've ever heard of."

"Especially when you're going to do it from a million klicks out," Swofford added.

"Right," Pampas agreed. "Either of those two pieces represents an enormous technological leap. Put them together . . ." He shook his head.

For a moment there was silence.

"All right," Sandler said at last. "What I'm hearing is that our options run from the ridiculously unlikely to the completely impossible, and that we're at a stalemate until and unless we can see this thing work for ourselves. That about sum it up?"

"I'd say so, yes, Ma'am," Pampas said.

"So let's make that happen." Sandler touched her board, and the wiring diagram floating over the table was replaced by a schematic of the Tyler's Star system. "The problem with catching raiders in the act is that they've always got so much space to work with," she said. "Usually, of course, they like to sit right at the hyper limit and catch their prey as they leave hyper-space; but our raider seems to prefer attacking them somewhere in mid-system."

"Which he'd never get away with anywhere except Silesia," Jackson muttered.

"No argument," Sandler agreed. "Everywhere else the in-system sensor nets would be right on top of him if he tried this too close to inhabited areas. So let's see if we can use that confidence against him."

A slightly curved green line appeared, coming in from the hyper limit and running inward to end at Hadrian, the fourth planet out from the sun. "Here's the vector our bait will most likely be coming in from," she said. "You can see by the configuration of the planets that unless our raider is waiting right at the hyper limit, he won't have any decent chance to attack before they're in range of either in-system forces or someone's sensor cluster."

"What's that blue marker?" Cardones asked, pointing at a flashing light by one of the outer planets.

"An experimental ring-mining scheme," Sandler said. "A joint Silesian/Andermani venture, and as such under the protection of the IAN. The Andies usually don't have more than a destroyer and a few LACs on station at any given time, but that's enough to keep most raiders clear of the outer system."

"Including our boy?" Hauptman asked.

"We hope so," Sandler said. "Because we certainly can't cover the inner and outer systems at the same time."

"Even the inner system's a lot of territory for one ship," Cardones pointed out. "Or are we expecting help?"

"No, we're on our own," Sandler said. "But it's not quite as bad as it looks."

She touched keys, and the schematic shifted to a close-up view of the inner system. "Here's the incoming vector again," she said. "And here's the outgoing."

Another green line appeared, running off at about a hundred forty degrees from the first. But instead of moving cleanly out toward the hyper limit, it split into three different paths a short distance out from the planet itself. "As you see, at this point our convoy suddenly loses its coherency," Sandler continued. "One of the merchantmen is slated to swing inward to a solar research station, two more are to head outward to a rendezvous with the fifth planet, Quarre, with the other four heading outsystem toward their next scheduled stop at Brinkman."

"I thought the whole purpose of a convoy was for the ships to stick together," Cardones said. "What are they splitting apart that way for?"

"Mainly because they haven't got much choice," Sandler said. "Three of the four ships in the latter group are carrying perishables, and they can't afford the extra time to divert either to the solar station or Quarre."

"So which group does the escort stay with?" Damana asked.

"Assuming there is an escort," Hauptman added.

"There is," Sandler assured her. "The heavy cruiser HMS Iberiana. The assumption is that no one's going to be interested in supplies being brought to a research station, so the plan is for the Iberiana to split the difference with the others. She'll run a course midway between them until the twosome reach Quarre orbit, then shift over, catch up with the main convoy, and take them out of the system."

"Pretty well coordinated plan," Cardones commented, frowning to himself. In point of fact, it was an amazingly well coordinated plan. Most convoys he'd ever known had been of the catch-as-catch-can variety, with merchies dribbling haphazardly into a system and the Navy then throwing them whatever escort they could scare up.

"Sometimes it works," Sandler said with a shrug. "Only when the merchantmen can stick with a real schedule, of course."

"So that's the two departing ships," Pampas said. "What happens with the others?"

"The two Quarre-bound ships—Dorado and Nightingale—will stay there for a few days, picking up cargo from the various asteroid mining operations and doing some maintenance," Sandler said. "At that point another convoy is scheduled to come through bound for Walther, and they'll link up with it. The Harlequin—that's the ship headed to the research station—will meanwhile join with a Silesian convoy going directly to Telmach."

"You seem to know a lot about their schedule," Cardones said.

Sandler smiled slightly. "Of course," she said. "We are ONI, you know."

"I meant all these specifics about the presumed attack," Cardones amplified. "From the way you were talking before, it sounded like all we knew was that there was a reasonable chance the raider would show up here looking for something to hit."

Damana shifted slightly in his seat, but Sandler's expression didn't even twitch. "That's all the predictor program did tell us," she agreed. "Only after we knew that could we pull up the shipping schedule and decide that this particular convoy was the likely target."

"Ah," Cardones said. He was still young, he knew, and still unsophisticated in the ways of the universe.

But he wasn't so young that he didn't know a flat-out lie when he heard it.

"At any rate, the point here is that the Harlequin is going to be the one off all alone," Sandler continued. "So that's the one I'm betting on."

"I presume we're not going to just follow it?" Swofford asked. "That would be just a bit obvious."

"Yes, it would," Sandler agreed. "And no, we're not."

The schematic shifted again, this time showing the merchantman's entire course from the convoy split to the research station tucked into its close solar orbit. "There's really only one stretch—granted, a big stretch—where the Harlequin will be out of sensor range of both the station and the Iberiana. We can cover about half the gap by putting the Shadow here."

A green blip appeared about three-quarters of the way from the split to the station "She'll be under full stealth, of course," she went on. "We'll then plug the rest of the gap right here."

Cardones frowned at the holo. There was something else already there, something that indicated a solid body and not a ship or base or anything else manmade. And the slender line marking its orbit . . . "What's that thing running the tight parabolic?" he asked.

"That, Lieutenant Cardones," Sandler said, a note of satisfaction in her voice, "is the comet officially designated Baltron-January 2479. Less officially, it's the Sun Skater Holiday Resort."

Cardones lifted his eyebrows. "It's the what?"

"You heard right," she assured him. "While the rest of the team takes the Shadow and goes into deep stealth—" she gave him a tight smile "—you and I are going to pay a visit to one of the most unusual resorts in the known galaxy."


Captain Grubner and another officer were waiting with the side party and a small Marine honor guard as Honor caught the bar and swung across from the free-fall of the tube into Neue Bayern's gravity. She landed gracefully and felt Nimitz adjust his own balance on her shoulder with the ease of decades of practice.

"Welcome to Neue Bayern, Captain Harrington," Grubner said gravely.

"Thank you, Captain," Honor said, throwing him her best parade-ground salute. "Permission to come aboard, Sir?"

"Permission granted," Grubner said, answering her salute with one of equal snap.

"Thank you, Sir." Honor stepped across the line and walked to the group. "It's a great honor to be here, Captain Grubner. Once again, I thank you for your willingness to see me."

"It is my pleasure," Grubner said, gesturing to the man at his side. "My executive officer, Commander Huang Trondheim."

"Captain Harrington," Trondheim said, offering Honor his hand. He was a youngish man, younger than she would have expected to be XO of a battlecruiser. Either he was highly competent at his job, or—the cynical whisper brushed across her mind—he had good family or political connections.

"Commander Trondheim," she said, taking his hand and shaking it. "Pleased to meet you."

"The honor is mine, Captain Harrington."

Honor felt her forehead trying to frown. There was something in Trondheim's voice, she sensed, some underlying interest that wasn't making it to his face.

"Dinner will be ready shortly," Grubner said, gesturing to the exit. "In the meantime, perhaps we can retire to my day cabin to discuss this matter of mutual interest you mentioned."

They made small talk along the way, discussing the ins and outs of starship command in general and starship command in the Silesian Confederacy in particular. Occasionally, Grubner or Trondheim would point out some aspect of the ship as they passed, always something unclassified that Honor already knew from her classes on Andermani shipbuilding technology.

The third time it happened, she was tempted to add in a tidbit of knowledge that she knew but which the others hadn't mentioned. But she suppressed the urge. She wasn't here to show off, either her own knowledge or ONI's.

Grubner's day cabin was smaller than the captain's quarters would have been aboard a comparable Manticoran ship, but its efficient layout made it actually feel slightly larger. "Please; be seated," Grubner invited, gesturing to a semicircle of comfortable-looking chairs grouped around a low table on which a carafe and three glasses were waiting. "May I offer you some wine, Captain?"

"Thank you," Honor said, choosing one of the chairs and sitting down. The upholstery looked less sturdy than that in her own quarters aboard Fearless, so she settled Nimitz—and his claws—in her lap.

"I would like to first apologize for my earlier brusqueness," Grubner said as he and Trondheim settled themselves into chairs facing her, the executive officer taking charge of the carafe. "As I said, we're on an important mission for the Emperor, a mission which I confess is not going well, and I wasn't much in the mood for chatting with a Manticoran convoy escort."

"I understand, Sir," Honor said as Trondheim handed her a glass of the rich red wine.

"What changed my mind was your name," Grubner went on. "We in the Empire have examined the events of Basilisk Station with great interest."

He gestured to Trondheim as he accepted his own glass. "Commander Trondheim, in fact, has made quite a study of the strategy and tactics involved, both yours and those of the People's Republic. He has, I believe, published two papers on the subject?"

"Yes, Sir," Trondheim said, smiling almost shyly at Honor. "I'm currently working on a third."

"I'm impressed," Honor said, understanding now the reason for Trondheim's interest in her. "And also honored that you found our actions worth so much of your time and effort. I would very much like to read them, if they're not classified."

"I'm honored in turn, Captain," Trondheim said. "I'll give you copies before you leave." He glanced at his captain. "And I should perhaps advise you that I'd like to get at least one more paper out of the subject."

"So be forewarned that any questions from the commander during dinner will carry ulterior motives," Grubner said with a smile.

The smile faded. "But now to business. The floor, Captain Harrington, is yours."

Honor took a sip from her glass, studying Grubner's face as she did so. It was an excellent wine, one of her favorite Gryphon vintages, and its presence here in Grubner's day cabin was a clear and unapologetic statement that the two Andermani clearly knew more about her than she knew about them.

Such straightforwardness, she decided, deserved an equally straightforward response. "We have reason to believe, Sir," she said, "that an Andermani warship has been attacking Manticoran merchantmen in Silesia."

Accusing the IAN of complicity in piracy should have sparked outrage or icy denial. The complete lack of either reaction, from either man, spoke volumes. "Indeed," Grubner said calmly. "And what has brought you to this conclusion?"

"We have records of emission readings from two separate incidents that clearly indicate Andermani ship design," Honor said. "From the acceleration the ship pulled as it ran in on its victims, we deduce it must have been a warship."

Grubner pursed his lips. "But you have no actual visual confirmation of the attacker's identity?"

"No," Honor conceded. "But our people believe there can be no mistake."

"I see," Grubner said. "And what reason do you think the Empire might have to attack Manticoran shipping?"

"There are two theories," Honor told him. "One is that this is a rogue ship, running on some unauthorized and probably personal vendetta against us."

"And do these same theorists presume an entire ship's company can go insane together?" Trondheim asked pointedly.

"It wouldn't take more than a few of the top officers to create such a situation," Honor pointed out in turn. "Like those of Her Majesty's Navy, I expect the Empire's crews would obey orders, even if those orders didn't seem to make sense."

"You mentioned two theories," Grubner said. "What is the other one?"

Honor braced herself. "That this is in fact an official Andermani military operation," she said. "Top secret, but officially sanctioned."

"Certainly a much simpler theory," Trondheim said evenly. "All we need now is for a single man—the Emperor—to have lost his mind."

"It doesn't have to have anything to do with the Emperor," Honor hastened to point out, feeling a sheen of sweat beginning to collect beneath her collar. Being straightforward was one thing, but a dash or two of diplomacy might have been in order. "It could be a newly appointed Prime Minister or sector admiral who's decided to see how the Star Kingdom would react to such a threat."

"No such changes have occurred at the highest levels of our government," Trondheim countered. "And no sector admiral would dare presume such a unilateral change in policy on his or her own."

"Of course not," Honor said. "I merely mentioned it—"

"You mentioned it in order to gauge our reaction," Grubner said calmly. "But tell me, Captain. So far you've spoken of the theories of others. What do you think?"

"I think someone has found a way to fake Andermani ship emissions," she told him. "I think that same someone is trying very hard to play us off against each other."

Grubner's face seemed to harden, just slightly. "Really," he said, his voice carefully neutral.

"Yes," Honor said. Straightforward, she reminded herself. "Furthermore, I think that the fact that neither of you has reacted with surprise or outrage to my accusation means you already know all about this mystery ship."

Grubner lifted his eyebrows at Trondheim. "I told you she was quick," the executive officer said.

"Indeed," Grubner agreed, looking back at Honor. "Very well, Captain. You've been gracious enough to put your cards on the table. Let me do the same with ours. One of our light cruisers, the IANS Alant, has gone missing. The Neue Bayern has come to Silesia to look for her."

"Gone missing how?" Honor asked, frowning.

"Vanished while on patrol several months ago," Grubner said. "We assumed she had simply been destroyed, either accidentally or as the result of an attack."

He took another sip of his wine. "But then we began to hear reports of a raider which seemed on the surface to be Silesian, but which showed an Andermani emission spectrum underneath. Apparently, the Alant had been taken intact."

Honor sat up a little straighter. "Where did you hear these reports?" she asked.

Grubner smiled suddenly. "From Manticoran Intelligence, of course," he said. "Our information sources in the Star Kingdom are quite extensive."

Honor's throat went suddenly tight. "Then you knew all along what I was doing here?"

"We knew what your people were saying," Grubner corrected. "But as some of your people have reacted with caution to this situation, so have some of ours. This story of a rogue Andermani could have been a disinformation campaign by Manticore, designed to goad us into a confrontation."

He shrugged. "When you hailed me, I thought perhaps speaking with you face to face might help clear up some of those uncertainties."

Honor glanced at Trondheim, but his expression wasn't giving anything away either. "And has it?"

"To some degree, yes," Grubner said. "Of course, I'm like you: I can't believe Manticore would be so foolish as to provoke trouble between our nations, particularly at a time when war is brewing between you and the People's Republic. But regardless of what Manticore may or may not be doing, I am now convinced that you yourself are not a collaborator in any such secret conspiracy, or at least not an informed one. I am further convinced that you wish to bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion, no matter where the chips may fall."

"The chips?" Honor asked carefully.

"Yes," Grubner said. "Because it could still be that this is a secret plan of your government's. A revelation like that would be highly embarrassing to your government. Are you willing to take that risk?"

Honor looked him squarely in the face. "Yes," she said.

"Good." Grubner's smile turned brittle. "Because despite Commander Trondheim's for-the-record indignation a moment ago, it could also be that the Alant has indeed gone rogue, in which case the embarrassment would be on our side. But either way, I believe it is in both of our interests that she be tracked down and dealt with as quickly as possible."

Honor felt her heartbeat speeding up. Was he actually offering to join in a cooperative venture here? "I agree, Sir," she said cautiously. "Are you suggesting . . . ?"

She hesitated, suddenly wondering if she should even ask the question. Though the Star Kingdom and Empire were officially at peace, there was a certain degree of coolness between their governments. A cooperative military venture, even one this localized, should properly require diplomats and ministers and a collection of Emperor's and Queen's officers far more senior than either she or Grubner. In fact, given all that, the question she'd been about to ask could even be taken as an implied insult of the Empire's chain of command—

"That we work together?" Grubner suggested into the hiatus. "Yes, that's exactly what I am suggesting."

Honor tried to keep her reaction out of her face. From Grubner's dryly amused expression, she obviously hadn't succeeded. "You seem shocked," he said.

"Yes, Sir, a little," Honor admitted. "Not that I'm unwilling," she hastened to add. "I'm just . . . surprised . . . that you would trust me that far."

"With anyone else, I'm not sure I would," Grubner admitted in turn. "I certainly have my fair share of distrust toward Manticore. But."

He leveled a finger at her. "That distrust is based on my suspicion of the Star Kingdom's motives regarding Silesia. The Confederation has a potential to create huge wealth for whichever of us wins out in the region. I'm sure you'll agree that love of money can quickly taint the purest motives."

"Indeed," Honor said. "At the same time, I'm not sure I would agree with your tacit assumption that I'm above such motives."

"Perhaps no human being is, entirely," Trondheim said. "But with you, we at least have evidence that such motivations are low on your list."

Honor frowned. "What evidence?"

"The fact that at Basilisk Station you refused to back down from your duty even in the face of pressure from Klaus Hauptman himself," Grubner said. "That speaks to me of an officer who is motivated by duty and what she perceives to be best for her nation and her service."

He regarded her thoughtfully. "I believe I can justify trusting such an officer. Certainly for a task of this sort."

"Thank you, Captain," Honor said, inclining her head to him as she ruminated briefly on the odd twists the universe could take. At the time she'd stood up to Hauptman she would have sworn nothing good could possibly come of it. "How do you propose we proceed?"

Grubner smiled as he leaned back in his chair. "No, no, Captain," he admonished gently. "This meeting was your idea; and somehow I doubt you came here without a plan already in mind. Please; enlighten us."

"Yes, Sir," Honor said, trying to organize her thoughts. She had indeed had some ideas swirling vaguely through her mind, but her main purpose in coming to the Neue Bayern had been to see if they could exchange information about the rogue ship. She hadn't in her wildest dreams expected Grubner to offer what boiled down to a temporary alliance between the Empire and the Star Kingdom, even such a private one. "Up to now, this raider seems to have been concentrating its attention on Manticoran shipping. It would seem reasonable, therefore, that if we're to catch him, I'm the one who needs to provide the bait."

"Reasonable," Grubner agreed. "And that trick you used of making yourself appear to be a civilian ship should certainly help lure him in."

"Still, Silesia is a large place," Trondheim pointed out, "with a considerable number of Manticoran convoys traveling its starlanes. How do you propose we attract his attention?"

"The best way would be to find a convoy that looks particularly appealing to him," Honor said. "I have a couple of ideas on how to do that."

She looked at Grubner. "But Commander Trondheim has a point. This may take some time; and in the meantime you won't be covering as much ground as you would if you searched on your own."

Grubner waved a hand. "We spent three weeks floating through Zoraster space with nothing to show for it before you arrived," he pointed out. "I doubt it will be any less efficient for us to shadow an actual convoy on its way."

"Though I trust you don't intend a literal shadowing," Trondheim cautioned. "I doubt we can crank back our impellers and emissions far enough to pass as a Manticoran merchantman."

"Certainly not long enough to entice an attacker into a no-escape situation," Grubner agreed, lifting an eyebrow at Honor. "Have you thoughts on that subject, Captain Harrington?"

"I agree that simply following us won't work," Honor said. "I do have another idea; but it'll require a certain amount of fancy maneuvering on your part."

Grubner smiled broadly. "A word of advice, Captain Harrington," he said. "Never issue a challenge like that to an IAN officer unless you are serious."

Setting his wineglass back on the table, he leaned forward expectantly. "Let's hear your plan."


Venizelos and Wallace were waiting for her when she swung out of the tube into Fearless's boat bay. "Welcome back, Captain," Venizelos said, his casual voice unable to completely hide his relief that she was back safe and sound. "How was your dinner?"

"Excellent," she told him, studying Wallace out of the corner of her eye. From the slight tightness of his lips, she decided, he was still miffed at having been left behind. "Though I get the feeling they go out of their way to impress visiting non-Andermani just on general principles."

"And your meeting, Ma'am?" Wallace asked, with just a hint of that same tightness in his tone.

"Productive," Honor said. "Let's go to my quarters. We need to talk."

No one spoke again until they were in her cabin and seated around her desk. "All right," she said, reaching to her lap to stroke Nimitz. "First of all, we need to make some introductions here. Some complete introductions."

"Captain," Wallace warned, his tone reminding her that Admiral Trent had made it abundantly clear that his identity was to be kept a vacuum-black secret from everyone else in her crew, including Venizelos.

It wasn't something Honor needed reminding of. Unfortunately, given the current situation—

"Are you referring to Commander Wallace's affiliation with Naval Intelligence?" Venizelos asked calmly. "And no, she didn't tell me," he added as Wallace's eyes flashed. "She didn't need to."

"Terrific," Wallace growled. "How many of you know?"

Venizelos shrugged. "I haven't discussed it with anyone else, but probably only myself and maybe one or two others. Naturally, it won't go any further."

"Naturally," Wallace echoed ironically, in the tone of a man reluctantly accepting the inevitable. "If the introductions are now complete enough, Captain . . . ?"

Honor described her conversation with Grubner and Trondheim. "Interesting," Venizelos commented when she had finished. "You think they're serious?"

"They certainly seemed so," Honor said. "Besides which, I can't think of a good reason why they would lie to me that way."

"Unless this raider is in fact an official probe by the Emperor," Wallace said sourly. "In that case, having their denial on record would help if they had to pull the plug on the whole thing at some point."

"Except that I doubt a simple battlecruiser captain is high enough in the chain of command to be privy to any such high-level intrigues," Honor pointed out.

"But if he's simply been fed the official story—" Wallace broke off, nodding. "Oh. Right. If all he has is the official story, there's no reason for him to be setting up fall-back excuses."

"And certainly not with some Manticoran commander he happens to run across," Honor said. "Which brings me back to my opinion that we can trust him to do what he's promised."

"At least as long as it looks like sticking with us will gain him something," Venizelos said.

"Which gives us that much more incentive to smoke this raider out as quickly as possible," Honor said. "Which means finding the right kind of bait."

She turned to Wallace. "Over to you, Commander."

Wallace seemed taken aback. "Over to me how?" he asked cautiously. "Are you saying you want me to find this bait?"

"You're the ONI man on the scene," Venizelos reminded him. "What do fake Andy ships eat for lunch?"

"I have no idea," Wallace said. "We only have two sightings, after all."

"Both of them alongside wrecked merchies," Honor reminded him. "Why don't we start with what the merchies were carrying."

Wallace's lips compressed briefly. "I don't know."

Honor and Venizelos exchanged glances. "I thought you were part of the team," Venizelos said.

"I was part of the team analyzing the attacker's ID and emission spectrum," Wallace said. "A different team was assigned to look over the merchantmen themselves."

"And, what, you don't talk to each other?"

Wallace's lip twitched. "Our report was instantly classified," he said. "That means no one below a field officer sees it without that field officer's authorization. If their report was classified too . . ." He shrugged. "At any rate, I haven't heard anything from that end of the investigation."

"That's just great," Venizelos muttered, shaking his head in disgust.

"That's SOP," Honor reminded him, sitting firmly on her own annoyance. "The system's there for a reason, so let's figure out how to work with it. Where's the nearest field office, Mr. Wallace? Posnan?"

"No, that one's been closed down," Wallace said. "The nearest actual station's now at Silesia."

Honor looked at Venizelos. "Any chance we can sneak over there while we're at Tyler's Star?"

Venizelos shook his head. "Not and stay with our schedule," he said. "Our next convoy should already be assembling when we get there with this one. We'll only have a couple of days; and after that we're off to Walther and Telmach, with no way to get back to Silesia."

Honor nodded; she'd pretty much come to the same conclusion. "Where's the closest base after Telmach?" she asked Wallace.

"Actually . . ." Wallace hesitated. "At the moment, Telmach should do just fine."

"I didn't know we had a base there," Venizelos said, frowning.

"We don't," Wallace said. "What we do have is the Provisioner about to set up shop."

Honor exchanged lifted eyebrows with Venizelos. The Provisioner was a depot ship, a sort of floating goody basket for Royal Navy ships working a long way from home. "I thought Provisioner was at the Gregor Terminus."

"It was," Wallace said. "She's being brought to Silesia as a sort of experiment. The hope is that if our escort ships can stay in the Confederacy longer without having to return to Manticore for supplies and replacement parts, we can guard our convoys more efficiently."

"Sounds reasonable," Venizelos said. "And you're saying there's an ONI field office aboard?"

"Not an office per se," Wallace said, "but there's an officer of command rank who should be receiving these reports on a timely basis."

" 'Should' being the operative word?"

"He will be receiving the reports," Wallace corrected himself tartly. "If you can wait until we reach there, we can hopefully get the merchantman data and start figuring out what sort of ship our raider likes to go after."

"Good enough," Honor said, keying for the bridge.

DuMorne's face appeared on her com screen. "Yes, Ma'am?"

"Is the Neue Bayern still within tight-beam transmission?"

DuMorne peered at something off-camera. "Yes, Ma'am, just barely."

"Good," Honor said. "Have Joyce get a lock while I record a message. And pull up our flight schedule for attachment."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Honor cut the circuit. "And after I do that," she told Venizelos and Wallace, "you two can bring me up to speed on the progress of our little impromptu cargo inspection."


"We're in position, Commodore," the Vanguard's helmsman reported. "Holding orbit true."

"Reduce impellers to standby," Dominick ordered. "Rig for full stealth."

"Yes, Sir."

The bridge crew started down the by-now familiar checklist; and from his unobtrusive seat beside the tac officer's station, Charles permitted himself a small smile.

It was a self-satisfied smile, though he was careful not to let any of that part show through. Dominick was hooked, all right; hooked like a prize bassine on a strand of thousand-kilo test line. And if the commodore was hooked, the People's Republic was hooked, too.

All he had to do now was reel them in. Reel them in, and hope that Dominick didn't accidentally bite on the bone before the deal was done.

The smile faded. No, Dominick wouldn't bite. Dominick was completely under his control, dazzled by his successes and by the booty pouring in from the Manticoran merchantmen he and his new toy had crushed beneath their heel. Dominick would follow Charles straight into hell if Charles wanted him to. Even better, he would charge in fully convinced that the course setting had been his own idea.

Not that Charles had any intention of dragging him or the Vanguard anywhere near that sort of fire, of course. On the contrary, he had every intention of keeping this ship as safe as possible. And not only because his own precious skin was aboard. If they tumbled to the hook too quickly, that skin wouldn't be worth very much.

And therein lay the rub. Because if Commodore Dominick was safely under control, Captain Vaccares was another matter entirely. He was primed for that trip to the edge of hell, eager to give the Crippler the kind of baptism of fire that Charles couldn't afford for it to have.

Something would have to be done about that. Something that wouldn't rock the boat Charles had so carefully maneuvered along this potentially treacherous channel for the past few months.


Charles turned his attention and his smile to Dominick. "Yes, Commodore?"

"If they're on schedule, we'll have another four days before the Harlequin arrives," Dominick said. "While we're waiting, I want to put the crew through some extra simulations."

"Excellent idea," Charles agreed. "How can I help?"

"I want you to supervise the Crippler crew," the commodore said. "We're going to practice going up against a Manty warship, and you're the only one who can tell us if the simulation is accurate enough."

"I'll do what I can," Charles promised smoothly, even as he felt his stomach muscles bunching up. So Dominick was smelling blood in the water now, too. Damn that Vaccares, anyway.

Still, it could be worse. If the attack on the Harlequin fell out as planned, this particular Manty escort should be too far away to be a problem. And if for some reason it was closer or faster than anticipated, he should still be able to get the Vanguard out before the Manty could move in on them.

And supervising the Crippler drills would be a perfect opportunity to lay the necessary groundwork for that kind of strategic withdrawal. "When do we begin?" he asked.

"Immediately," Dominick said, smiling wolfishly. "If you'll head down to the Crippler ops station, I'll sound battle stations."

"Certainly," Charles said, getting to his feet. Besides, he'd known going in that there was a fair chance this house of cards would eventually come tumbling down. That was why his own private yacht was snugged away in Vanguard's Number Four boat bay, and why he'd introduced that little bug into the battlecruiser's transponder and sensor systems so that the yacht wouldn't even be noticed if and when he had to leave.

And it was also why he'd made sure the up-front half of the price he'd negotiated with Hereditary President Harris for the Crippler would be enough to make him a respectable profit. If he never saw the half-on-approval money, he would survive.

He just hoped that if and when he had to vanish the Vanguard would be in a system where he had some contacts. His little sublight runabout wasn't going to take him anywhere else, and he would hate to still be stuck in some Silesian backwater trying to get home when the Havenites came looking for him.

He glanced at the main viewing screen as he crossed the bridge, noting the delicate sweep of a distant comet's tail slashing across the starscape behind it. Back on Old Earth, he knew, comets had been considered bad omens.

Groundless superstition, of course. He hoped.


Directly ahead, visible in all its glory on the cabin viewscreen, the delicate sweep of Baltron-January 2479's tail arched its way across the starscape. Comets, Cardones remembered, had once been considered bad omens.

Groundless superstition, of course. He hoped.

"Your attention, please," the pilot's voice came over the lounge speakers, and the two dozen well-dressed passengers scattered around paused in their drinking or conversation to listen. "I'll put it on the main display in a minute, but if you want to look out the right side of the cabin at the comet's head, you should be able to see the main building of the Sun Skater Resort."

There was no mad rush for the viewports; people with the kind of money these folks had, Cardones reflected, made a point of not looking hurried. Instead, they made a sort of concerted but leisurely drift toward the starboard side, those with glasses still sipping from them, most pretending it was no big deal even as they jockeyed genteelly for the best viewing positions.

Cardones glanced to his left, wondering if Captain Sandler was as amused by it as he was. But if she was, it didn't show in the bland, self-indulgent, wealthy-beyond-all-belief expression she was wearing. It was an expression designed to match those of the rest of the passengers, just as the rest of her posture and behavior let her mix seamlessly with them.

And, not surprisingly, she was doing it far better than Cardones was. He looked back at the crowd by the viewports and wished for the umpteenth time that he'd been able to talk Sandler into picking one of the others for this role instead of him.

But she'd had all the logic on her side, not to mention the command authority to back it up. Even he had had to admit that the probability of the raider attacking the Harlequin within sight of anyone, even the dilettantes lounging around the Sun Skater, was really quite low. The Shadow was silently covering the more likely attack area, and Sandler had insisted the ship be fully crewed with pilot, copilot, and all three techs. Cardones and Sandler had thus been the only two people the spy ship could spare; and so it was Cardones and Sandler who were going to spend a couple of nights in Tyler's Star's premier resort.

In one of the four honeymoon cabins.

Cardones squirmed in his seat. Sandler had made it quietly clear that none of the standard honeymoon activities would be taking place between them, and that she'd booked the cabin solely for its distance and therefore privacy from the main resort complex. But that hadn't stopped Cardones from feeling excessively uncomfortable with the whole arrangement. Nor had it stopped the others, most notably Damana and Pampas, from ribbing him about it.

But all that was forgotten as the camera zoomed in on the resort and he got his first real look at the place.

Sun Skater had been the brainchild of some Solly developer who had noticed Baltron-January 2479 drifting in toward Tyler's Star and seen possibilities no one else had. The entire complex had been thrown up in a matter of months, built onto—and partially sunk into—the comet's five-kilometer-diameter head.

It must have seemed like a fool's fever dream back when the comet was nothing but a huge lump of ice and rock floating out beyond Hadrian's orbit. But now, with the comet in close enough for the solar wind to work its magic, the investment had paid off handsomely. Carefully positioned just past the comet head's midpoint, the resort was squarely in the flow of the ethereal tail being gently boiled off the ice.

It was a vantage point virtually no one in the galaxy had ever had before, and that alone would have guaranteed it at least a trickle of the rich and jaded. Adding in the highly ephemeral nature of the place—for the resort would most likely be abandoned once the comet had circled the sun and its magnificent tail faded away—and that trickle had become a steady stream.

"There's our place," Sandler murmured from his side, pointing to the left of the main building complex. "That little red-topped building off to the left. See it?"

Cardones patted her hand in what he hoped was a husbandly sort of way. "Yes, dear," he said.

Still, he had to admit that there was a certain kick in being able to call an attractive female superior officer dear. Especially when he'd actually been ordered to do so.

* * *

Honeymoon Suite Three was located a hundred meters from the main resort complex, accessible through a half-underground tunnel. Like the tunnel, the suite had been partially sunk into the rocky ice of the comet for stability; and like the rest of the complex, it had the comet's tail sweeping over it, drifting past its windows. It was a strange and curiously magnetic sight, Cardones decided as he stopped their luggage cart just inside the main pressure door and peered out the kitchenette window. Rather like a horizontal snowfall, but without the howling windstorm that would be needed to create such a phenomenon on any normal planet. Here, instead, all was silence and calm.

He walked past the kitchenette and the bedroom door and stepped into the living room. There he paused again, his attention caught by the view out the back windows. Beyond the "rear" of the complex, the drifting ice crystals flowed together behind the comet head, coalescing into a tail that stretched out for millions of kilometers toward the brilliant starscape beyond.

"Nice view," Sandler commented.

Cardones jumped; he hadn't heard her come up beside him. "Sure is," he agreed, an odd lump in his throat. "I can see why people are paying these rates to come out here."

"Yes," Sandler said. "But Her Majesty isn't paying for us to gawk at the scenery. Let's get to work."

The spell vanished. "Right," Cardones said, turning away from the view and heading back to the luggage cart. "I just hope they were able to sneak in the sensor pod while we were catching the shuttle from Hadrian."

"We'll know as soon as we try firing up the remotes," Sandler said. "I think we'll set up here by the window. Get the receiver and display panel and bring them in."

Cardones picked up two of the suitcases and returned to the living room. She was in the process of rearranging the furniture, pulling the coffee table and a pair of end tables together in front of the couch that faced out toward the drifting tail. Opening one of his suitcases, Cardones pulled out a multi-channel short-range receiver array and carried it to the coffee table, trailing wires behind him.

It took them nearly two hours to set everything up, connect all the wires properly, and run the various self-checks. But after that, it took only a few minutes to confirm that the Shadow had indeed managed to place the sensor pod nearby.

"I'm surprised the tail isn't interfering with the readings," Cardones commented, peering at the displays.

"Actually, there really isn't all that much substance to it," Sandler reminded him as she made a small adjustment to one of the settings. "It's only thin gas and ice crystals blown off by light pressure and solar wind. Mostly all it does is provide a little visual camouflage for the pod, which is what we wanted."

"Still, some of those crystals are ionized, and a lot of the rest are scattering photons and electrons all over the place," Cardones pointed out. "I'd have thought that would at least skew some of the more sensitive detectors."

Sandler shrugged. "They're very good instruments."

"Nothing but the best for ONI?"

"Something like that." Sandler stretched her arms back over her shoulders. "If the Harlequin's on schedule, she should be hitting the edge of our sensor range anywhere from six hours to two days from now. Let's order some dinner from the kitchenette and then both grab a few hours' sleep."

* * *

They had their dinner and five hours of sleep, with Cardones on the large and comfortable bed while Sandler took the far less comfortable couch. Cardones had felt more than a little guilty about that, but Sandler had insisted. He had countered by insisting—with all due respect to a superior officer, of course—that he take the first watch after that.

He was two hours into that watch when the sensor pod made its first contact.

It was definitely a merchantman, looking alone and vulnerable as she lumbered along, and Cardones keyed a query pulse from the sensor pod to check the ID transponder. It was the Harlequin, all right, dead on the timetable Sandler had given him. For a civilian ship to hold so tightly to schedule was almost unheard of. Either Sandler was an incredibly lucky guesser, or else the Harlequin's skipper was the most anal retentive in the merchant fleet. With a mental shake of his head, he began a systematic quartering of the sky for other impeller signatures. There shouldn't be any, he knew: the rest of the convoy would be well out of his detection range by now, and Shadow was supposed to be skulking along invisibly on full stealth well behind Harlequin's current position, her own impellers shut down to standby.

And then, almost before he'd begun his search, another signature blazed into existence. A powerful signature, too strong to be that of a merchie or system patrol craft. Almost certainly a warship.

And it was burning along at four hundred gravities on an intercept course with the Harlequin.

"Captain?" he called toward the bedroom where Sandler had relocated when he began his watch. He keyed the computer for analysis, belatedly realizing he should have done that before waking her up. If this was nothing but an extra Manticoran escort laid on at the last minute, he was going to look pretty silly.

Too late. "What have we got?" Sandler said, fastening her tunic as she stepped into the living room.

"The Harlequin and a bogey," Cardones reported. "It's running a Silesian ID—"

He broke off as the analyzer beeped its results. "But the emission spectrum makes it a Peep warship," he finished. "From the impeller strength, probably a battlecruiser."

"Got to be our raider," Sandler said grimly, dropping onto the couch beside him and snagging one of the keyboards. "And a Peep, yet. Imagine my surprise."

"Look's like Harlequin's come to the same conclusion," Cardones agreed as the merchie's vector and emission numbers suddenly changed. "She's making a run for it."

"Watch carefully, Rafe," Sandler said quietly. "Come on, Peep. Do your stuff . . ."

Abruptly, the bogey's impeller emissions began to fluctuate, bouncing wildly up and down and up again. Cardones opened his mouth to say something—

And without any other warning, the Harlequin's impellers suddenly died.

Cardones exhaled his intended warning in a huff of stunned air instead. "They did it," he murmured. "They really did it."

"They sure did," Sandler agreed, her voice somewhere midway between awed and horrified. "Damn and a half. They actually knocked out her wedge."

With an effort, Cardones shifted his eyes to one of the other displays. "And from nearly a million kilometers away."

Sandler muttered something under her breath. "I've been hoping we were wrong, Rafe," she said quietly. "Hoping we were misinterpreting the data, or that this was some elaborate disinformation scheme. But this—" She shook her head.

"Unless there's a saboteur aboard," Cardones suggested hesitantly. They still had that single thread to grasp at.

But Sandler shook her head. "No," she said firmly. "Not on that ship."

Cardones frowned sideways at her. There'd been something in her tone . . . 

"Is there something else I should know about this?" he asked carefully.

Sandler's lips compressed into a tight line. "That's not just a regular merchantman out there, Rafe. She's a Royal Navy supply ship."

"Ah," Cardones said as the whole thing suddenly came together. No wonder Sandler had known where to wait for the Harlequin, and when to start watching for her. Regular merchantmen might not be able to hold to a schedule worth treecat-chewed celery, but RMN ships most certainly could. "Who are they supplying?"

"The research station, for one." She smiled tightly at his expression. "Oh, yes, it is a research station, and it is doing some studies of Tyler's Star. But we also have a presence aboard for some . . . other work."

The smile vanished. "But mostly, they were on their way to Telmach to resupply the Provisioner."

Cardones blinked. Provisioner was a depot ship, designed to be home away from home for far-flung RMN forces. What was she doing in Silesia?

And then the full import of it hit him. "They've got high-tech military equipment aboard," he breathed. "Sensor modules, ECM—even missiles?"

"No, no missiles," Sandler said. "And she shouldn't have much in the way of ECM, either. This one's mostly carrying non-classified stuff."

"'This one'?"

"There's another ship on its way," Sandler said, the words coming out with the reluctance of pulled teeth. "The Jansci. She's due here in four days to join the Dorado and Nightingale at Quarre. They'll meet a new escort there and head to Telmach by way of Walther." Her lips compressed again. "That's the ship loaded with sensitive equipment."

Cardones gazed at the displays. No wonder she'd been so reluctant to talk about this back aboard the Shadow. "And yet they knew right where to hit it," he said. "And they knew which ship of the convoy they wanted."

"Not necessarily," Sandler said. But the words were automatic, without any weight of conviction behind them. "It could have just been the luck of the draw."

The Peep warship had hit the midpoint of its vector and was starting its deceleration toward a zero-zero rendezvous with its helpless prey.

"Not a chance," Cardones declared. "They're getting information. They know exactly what they're doing."

He looked sharply at her as the last piece suddenly fell into place. "Just the way you do. This little hunch didn't fall out of some computer prediction program, did it? They knew what the Harlequin was carrying; and you knew that they knew it."


"There's a spy in the works somewhere," he cut her off. "ONI is feeding him all this information, letting him give it to the Peeps, all so we could get here ahead of time and be waiting for him."

"Get off the subject, Lieutenant," Sandler said, her voice soft but with a layer of warning laminated to it. "This is classified way over your head."

Cardones bit down hard against the retort trying to get out. "What about Harlequin's crew?" he asked instead. "Or are they part of the bait, too?"

"They're already out," Sandler assured him. "They would have had a pinnace waiting, just in case."

She lifted her eyebrows. "But even if they hadn't, we would have done it this way," she added coldly. "The only thing that matters is getting a handle on this weapon of theirs and figuring out how to counter it. To do that we need to see it work; and to do that we had no choice but to let them go into harm's way."

The corner of her lip twitched. "And really, is that so different from what you do in the regular Navy? You go into battle fully prepared to sacrifice some of your own. Certainly you know that a number of your screening destroyers and cruisers will die in order to take some of the heat off your ships of the wall."

Cardones looked away from her, wanting to argue the point but no longer certain he could. They did go into battle knowing some were going to die, after all. Was that really any different from what Sandler and ONI were doing here? He looked back at the displays, searching the universe for answers.

There weren't any. But because he happened to be looking at the displays, he saw something neither he nor Sandler had yet noticed.

The raider had spouted a dozen assault boats, as both of them had known it would. But only eight of the boats were converging on the Harlequin's paralyzed hulk.

The other four were headed straight toward the Sun Skater Resort.


"You had better be right about this, Captain," Dominick warned the image on his com screen. "We know Harlequin got a distress signal off, and we have a very limited number of minutes before the system forces respond."

"I am," Vaccares said confidently. As if, Dominick thought sourly, the thought of a third fewer boats available to collect Harlequin's booty didn't even bother him. "It was definitely a transponder query pulse; and it definitely came from the direction of that comet."

Dominick grimaced. But if Vaccares was right, there was indeed no choice. One of the mission's standing orders was that no one was to get a good look at the Crippler in action—or, at least, not to get that look and survive to tell the story—until Charles decided they were ready to take on all comers, Manty warships included.

And speaking of the devil— "I agree with Captain Vaccares," Charles spoke up. "A hidden query pulse may be accompanied by an equally hidden sensor array. If it is, you need to get rid of it before it can transfer data to anyone."

Dominick felt his lip twist. Personally, he didn't give a rat's backside anymore whether or not the Manties got to see their new toy in action. A healthy dose of panic would be good for the overconfident little royalists, in fact. All he could see was the four fewer boats' worth of top-grade Manty technology going into Vanguard's holds.

But the standing orders didn't care. "Fine," he growled. "Have them take a look. You sure you don't want to go along to supervise personally?"

"No, thank you, Commodore," Vaccares said, his voice grim. "If there's a Manty skulking by that comet, I want to be right here when he shows himself."


"No doubt about it," Sandler said tightly. "They're on their way. Must have spotted the pod."

"What do we do?" Cardones demanded, peering over the top of the displays at the window. Suddenly their spacious luxury suite was feeling downright claustrophobic.

As was the resort; and, for that matter, the whole damn comet. There were precious few places here to hide, and nowhere at all to run.

"First job is to get rid of the pod," Sandler said, crossing the room to an attaché case she'd earlier set unopened along the wall. "Maybe we can convince them that's all there is."

"Somehow, I doubt they'll be that gullible," Cardones said, watching in fascination as she settled the case on her lap and flipped it open. Inside was what looked like a miniature helm control board, complete with an attitude control stick and a set of compact display screens set into the lid.

"We'll see." Sandler flipped a pair of switches and the control board came to life, status lights starting to change from red to amber to green as the device ran its self-check. "Ever seen one of these before?"

"No," Cardones said. "I gather it's a remote control?"

"Best on the market," Sandler confirmed, settling her right hand into a grip on the stick and watching the last set of status lights with a patience Cardones could only envy. "Not that it's actually on the market, of course."

"Of course," Cardones said. "An ONI special, I presume?"

Sandler nodded. "We keep a couple aboard Shadow at all times," she said. "They're especially handy in that there's no hard-wiring needed. All you have to do is wrap the receiver pack around the control cables running between a ship's helm and auxiliary control and you're set."

"Really," Cardones said, looking at the case with new respect. "Even if someone else is trying to fly the ship at the time?"

"They're not quite that handy," Sandler said. "The induction signal's not nearly strong enough to override an actual control signal. At least," she added thoughtfully, "not yet. Maybe if you boosted the power enough you could even do that."

"All you'd have to do then would be find a way to smuggle a receiver pack and a spy aboard a Peep ship of the wall," Cardones said, trying to get into the spirit of the thing.

"You come up with the gadget and the technique and you'll retire rich," Sandler agreed. "Okay, here we go," she added as the last light turned green. "Cross your fingers."

She keyed the thrusters, and the relative-V numbers began to rise. Cardones shifted his gaze to the window, straining for a glimpse of the pod. It should be visible, he knew; the tail material wasn't all that dense.

There it was: a dark bubble in the tail, falling rapidly away from them. Sandler leaned the stick sideways, and the bubble moved left toward the edge of the tail—

And then, suddenly, the smooth stream of glowing gas was ripped apart as she kicked in the impellers. The pod darted away like a bat out of hell, turning straight into the sun and clawing for distance.

Two of the approaching boats responded immediately, breaking away from the others and charging off to the chase. "What are you going to do if they get close enough to grab it?" Cardones asked.

"They won't," Sandler said, concentrating on her controls. "I'll make sure to destroy it first."

"Okay," Cardones said slowly. "But won't that kind of ruin the illusion that there's a crew aboard?"

"They're not going to get hold of the pod intact," Sandler said tartly. "Other than that, I'm open to alternative suggestions. Here, make yourself useful."

She let go of the drive control long enough to dig a forceblade from her pocket and drop it into his lap. "Pull all the data chips from the recorders and put them in with the collection by the player over there."

"Right," Cardones said, standing up and slipping the forceblade into his own pocket.

"And then," Sandler added, "start cutting everything up."

Cardones froze in midstep. "You mean the recorders?"

"I mean everything." She glanced a thin smile up at him. "Yes, I know. Millions of dollars worth of equipment down the tubes." She nodded at the displays. "But two of those boats are still on the way, and I'm not expecting them to be satisfied with just looking in the windows. We're going to have company soon; and we'd better not have anything here the average honeymooning couple doesn't."

"Yes, Ma'am," Cardones said, looking around the room. "Only, once we've shredded it all, how do we get rid of the pieces?"

"You'll see," Sandler said, her attention back on her controls again. "Get to work."

Manticoran law required a forceblade to emit a horrible, tooth-twisting whine whenever its invisible blade was activated. Sandler's version, ONI issue no doubt, gave out only a soft buzz instead. Cardones had retrieved all the data chips and hidden them as instructed—they had come prelabeled, he noted, with music and vid titles—and he was in the process of slicing up the receiver when Sandler abruptly straightened. "Well, that's it," she announced grimly. "The pod is officially history. How's it coming?"

"Not very quickly," he admitted, glancing back toward the windows. The approaching assault boats were still too distant to be seen, of course, but even that illusory safety wouldn't last much longer. "I hope you're not planning to dump everything into the disposal."

"That's the first place a suspicious mind would think to look," Sandler said, crossing to the orange-rimmed emergency suit locker door and pulling it open. "Here."

Cardones looked up in time to catch the vac suit she'd tossed to him. "Throwing it all outside isn't going to be much better," he warned as he closed down the forceblade and started climbing into the suit. "Besides, won't we set off decompression alarms if we start cutting open windows?"

"Not if we're careful," Sandler said, already halfway into her own suit. "Suit up, and I'll show you a trick."

The vac suit was designed to accommodate a wide range of body sizes and types, and was therefore bulkier and looser than the skinsuits Cardones was used to. Still, emergency equipment was fairly standardized, and he had it on and sealed in ninety seconds flat. "Ready," he called as the status bar went to green.

"Right," Sandler said, her voice coming over his helmet speaker from her own helmet. She had pried the cover off the air-pressure sensor on the wall and was fiddling at it with a screwdriver. "Come over here."

Cardones stepped to her side. "See this little lever?" she asked, pointing with the screwdriver. "Hold it down. And don't let it up."

"Right." Gingerly, Cardones took the screwdriver and wedged the blade against the lever. "What does it do?"

"It tells the sensor that we're all breathing just fine in here," she said, stepping to the couch and retrieving the forceblade from where Cardones had left it. "It also keeps the ventilator system shut down, which means it won't try to add more air once we evacuate the suite."

"Handy lever," Cardones commented. "How come you know about these things? I thought you were a command officer, not a tech."

"You don't get to command a tech team without first having been a tech," Sandler said, crossing the room to the far corner, which sported a large potted plant on a low wrought-iron stand. Moving the plant and stand aside, she knelt down and set the business end of the forceblade against the wall. "Here goes."

She activated it; and suddenly Cardones felt a stirring of air around him. He shifted his attention to the window, wondering what would happen if someone aboard the approaching boats noticed the telltale plume of leaking air.

But of course they wouldn't, he realized suddenly. Not with all the ice crystals and other gases already flowing past the suite. The perfect cover. "I think it's working," he said.

"Thank you for that update," Sandler said dryly. Shifting position, she eased the tip of the forceblade into the narrow gap between the wall and the thick carpet pressed up against it. A little cutting, a little probing with her gloved fingertips, and she was able to pry up a corner. "Okay," she muttered, getting to her feet and pulling on the loosened carpet until she'd exposed a square meter of flooring. "Now comes the tricky part."

"What's tricky about it?" Cardones asked, understanding the plan now. Instead of throwing the incriminating evidence out the window for everyone to see, she was instead going to bury it beneath their suite.

"The need to cut a hole in the floor without shorting out the grav plates down there," she said tartly. "Or don't you think they'd notice if they wandered into this corner and bounced off the ceiling?"

Cardones swallowed. "Oh. Right."

He watched in silence as Sandler carefully cut a rough circle in the floor, beveled so that it could be seated solidly in place once it was put back. Lifting it out, she set it aside and peered down into the opening. From his vantage point across the room, all Cardones could see was that there were pipes and cables laid out against a metal grid. "How's it look?" he asked.

"Tight, but doable," she said, kneeling down and starting to dig into the opening with the forceblade. "And there's nothing but open comet head underneath the support grid. Should work just fine."

A fresh cloud of white was beginning to boil out now as her slashing movements and the rapidly decreasing air pressure combined to sublimate the ice beneath the suite into vapor. "Provided we have enough time," Cardones warned.

"We should," Sandler said, stretching out on the floor as she dug deeper. "Keep an eye toward the main complex—that's where the boats will probably land. And no talking from now on. I've cranked down the gain on these radios, but we don't want them accidentally stumbling over our frequency when they get closer."

Nodding inside his helmet, Cardones shifted his attention to the view out the side window.

The minutes crawled past. The breeze in the room faded away as the last of the air vanished out into the passing mists. Faint white clouds continued to drift up out of Sandler's pit as she dug, until finally she straightened, gave him a thumbs-up, and crossed to the table and their equipment.

And as she did so, across the frozen landscape, the two assault boats touched down beside the main complex.

Cardones opened his mouth to speak, remembered in time, and waved his free arm instead. Sandler looked up, and he pointed out the window. She took a moment to glance that direction, nodded to him, and got back to work.

For the next few minutes Cardones alternated his attention between her and the window, the frustration of his situation welling up in his throat like excess stomach acid. At least aboard Fearless he had work to do, duties that could theoretically make a difference. Here, there was nothing for him to do but stand around and watch Sandler work.

That, and maybe think.

Okay, he thought, trying to clear his mind. The boats carried no markings that he could see—big surprise there—but they looked to be fairly standard Peep issue. A maximum of thirty troops, fifteen if they were paranoid enough to put them in full armor, and they would probably go through the whole of the main complex before they tackled the outlying buildings.

That still didn't give them a tremendous amount of time, but Sandler was a lot faster at this kind of demolition work than he had been. She carried each piece of expensive hardware in turn to the hole she'd dug, slicing it up and dropping the pieces down the pit as if she'd done this sort of thing a hundred times before.

Maybe she had. The kind of budget ONI was rumored to have probably wouldn't even have winced at having the odd million dollars' worth of equipment turned into metallic cole slaw.

Finally, it was done. The last piece of the last console disappeared down the rabbit hole, and Sandler laid aside the forceblade and began setting the section of flooring back into place. She got it down and rolled the carpet back over it, tamping down the edges with her fingertips until it looked more or less the way it had before. An emergency patch from one of her suit pockets took care of the hole in the wall; and then she was at his side, taking the screwdriver from him at last and fiddling again with the sensor. He felt air begin to flow around him, and tensed for the scream of the low-pressure warning.

But again Sandler had done her job right, and there was no fuss or bother as the suite began to repressurize. Catching his eye, she nodded back toward the patched hole in the wall. He nodded understanding and crossed to the potted plant that had been sitting in that corner. Sitting around in vacuum that way couldn't have done it any good, but at least it shouldn't show any obvious signs of damage until after the raiders were long gone.

He got the stand back into place with the pot neatly hiding the patch, and stepped back to examine his handiwork. Like the carpet, the wall wouldn't hold up to a determined search, but people looking for a full data retrieval setup probably wouldn't be interested in tearing the room apart.

His suit indicator was showing adequate pressure now. Taking his first relaxed breath since those boats had started their direction, he reached up and twisted the helmet seal. It came loose with a gentle pop, and he glanced around the room as he pulled it off—

And froze.

Sandler had eliminated all the electronics, all right.

But she'd forgotten the empty suitcases.

Sandler had popped her own helmet and was starting to unseal her suit. "Captain!" he bit out. "The suitcases!"

She looked around at the damning evidence, her throat going visibly tight as she realized—too late—how suspicious those empty cases would look to even the most casual searcher. And she knew better than Cardones that neither the wall nor the floor would stand up to any real examination.

And then, even as the first rumblings of panic started to surge up Cardones's throat, he had the answer. Maybe. "I've got an idea," he said, stripping off the rest of his suit and tossing it and the helmet to Sandler. "Here—put these away."

They had barely three minutes to work before the suite's pressure door abruptly slid open to reveal a nervous-looking woman and two hulking, combat-suited men.

But three minutes was enough.

"Please excuse the interruption, Mr. and Mrs. Kaplan," the woman said, her voice quavering only slightly as the two troopers bulled their way into the suite, their momentum carrying her in ahead of them. She was wearing the burgundy-trimmed gray suit of the hotel management and seemed to be sweating profusely. "These . . . gentlemen . . . would like permission to search your suite."

"What?" Cardones demanded, letting his genuine tension add a matching quaver to his own voice. "What do you mean? What do you want?"

The performance was mostly wasted; one of the troopers had already disappeared into the bedroom, and the other had turned his head to study the kitchenette area. "I'm sorry," the woman said. "They arrived a few minutes ago and—"

"What's all that?" the second trooper demanded, his voice coming out hollow and slightly distorted from his suit speaker.

"What's what?" Cardones asked quickly.

"Those." The trooper strode past the manager straight toward Cardones. Cardones hurriedly backed up at his approach; and then the trooper planted himself in the middle of the room and swept a gloved finger over the half dozen cases scattered around. "That's a hell of a lot of suitcases," he amplified, his voice darkening with suspicion. "Way too many for two people on a four-day trip."

Cardones worked his mouth and throat. "Uh . . . well . . ."

"Open them," the trooper said flatly. "All of them."

Cardones threw a helpless look at Sandler, whose eyes were wide with guilty panic. She really was a good actress, he decided. "It's just that—"

"Open them!"

Cardones jumped. "Yes, Sir," he mumbled. Kneeling down, he popped the catches of the nearest suitcase and lifted the lid.

The manager inhaled sharply. "Are those—?"

"We were going to put them back," Sandler insisted, her voice coming out in a rush, all scared and miserable. "Really we were."

"We just wanted to see . . ." Cardones let his voice trail off.

"How they looked in your luggage?" the manager suggested coldly.

Shamefaced, Cardones dropped his eyes to the open suitcase. To the open suitcase; and the towels, wine glasses, and plates he'd packed inside, all of them proudly bearing the Sun Skater emblem. "They were just . . ." he mumbled. "I mean, it's so expensive here . . ."

Again, his voice trailed off. The trooper made a little snort of contempt and turned as his partner emerged from the bedroom. "Come on," he said. "Nothing here but a couple of small-timers."

They lumbered toward the door. The manager gave Cardones a look that promised this wasn't over, then turned and hurried to catch up with them.

The pressure door slid shut behind them, and Sandler exhaled in carefully controlled relief. "Congratulations, Commander, and brilliantly done," she said. "I didn't think we were going to pull that one off."

"Neither did I," Cardones said honestly. "But I guess when you go around robbing merchies, petty thieves are sort of kindred spirits."

"Or else they just found the whole thing amusing," Sandler said, retrieving an armful of linens from the suitcase and heading back toward the bedroom. "Still, definitely worth a commendation for quick thinking."

Cardones smiled tightly as he lifted out a set of wine glasses. "Which of course no one will ever see?"

"Probably not," she conceded from the bedroom. "Sorry."

"That's okay," Cardones said. "It's the thought that counts."

Half an hour later, the assault boats lifted away from the comet and disappeared back into space. An hour after that, Sandler and Cardones were closeted with the manager, who no longer had any capacity left for new surprises, but simply and numbly accepted the money Sandler gave her to pay for the damage to their suite.

Six hours after that, they were back aboard the Shadow.


"Well, there's good news, and there's bad news," Ensign Pampas grunted as he slid into a chair across from Sandler, Hauptman, Damana, and Cardones and spread a handful of data chips onto the wardroom table in front of him. "First bit of good news: this weapon of theirs really does exist."

"That's part of the good news?" Hauptman asked.

"It means we're not going to look stupid as the Intelligence service that fell for someone's disinformation game," Pampas said dryly. "The bad news is that I can't see any way of stopping this thing."

"Explain," Sandler said.

Pampas ran his fingers tiredly through his hair. He and the other two techs had been sifting through the Sun Skater data for the past twenty hours, and the skin of his face was sagging noticeably. Swofford and Jackson, in fact, had already been ordered to bed, and Pampas himself was only going to be up long enough to give his preliminary report. "Near as I can explain it, it's like a kind of heterodyning effect between the two impeller wedges," he said. "A rapid frequency shift that creates an instability surge in the victim's wedge."

"From a million klicks out?" Damana asked. "That's one hell of a stretch."

"This isn't like a grav lance," Pampas said, shaking his head. "That does actually push the wedge out far enough to knock out a sidewall. What this thing does is more subtle. It runs the attacker's wedge frequency up and down, alternating between a pair of wildly different frequencies, setting up a sort of rolling resonance. Even at a million klicks out, there's enough of an effect to throw an instability into the victim's own wedge, which manifests itself as a transient feedback through the stress bands back into the nodes. The current goes roaring through a handful of critical junction points—" He lifted a hand and dropped it back onto the table. "And as we saw, poof."

A hard-edged silence settled momentarily onto the table. "Poof," Sandler repeated. "Is it focused, or does it affect the entire spherical region around it?"

"With only the one target in this particular attack, it's hard to tell," Pampas said. "But I'd guess it's focused. There may be a spherical effect at a much closer range, but the million-klick shot has got to be aimed."

"Well, that's something, anyway," Damana said. "If we can keep to missile-duel range, we should be able to stay out of its way."

"Unless they set the things up in stealthed probes," Hauptman said darkly. "Or even in a mine field."

"That's the other thing," Pampas said, his lips puckering slightly. "If we're right about how this thing operates, it won't work against a warship."

Damana and Sandler exchanged startled glances. "You mean one of our warships?" Sandler asked.

"I mean any warship," Pampas said.

Damana was staring at Pampas as if waiting for the punchline. "You've lost me. Why not?"

"Because warships generate two different sets of stress bands, remember?" Pampas said patiently.

"Thank you for that lesson in the obvious," Damana said tartly. A bit too tartly, in Cardones's opinion; but then, Damana was tired, too. Certainly everyone here knew perfectly well that every warship generated two separate stress bands. The outer one was what kept an opponent's sensors from getting an accurate read on the inner one, because—in theory, at least—someone with an accurate read on the strength of a wedge could slip an energy weapon or sensor probe straight through. Preventing that from happening was one reason warships' impeller nodes were so powerful for their size. "So why can't it just take them down one at a time?"

"Because there's no specific frequency for a resonance to latch onto," Pampas explained. "The two wedges act like weakly coupled springs, with their frequencies in effect flowing back and forth into each other. Same reason it's impossible to scan through someone else's wedge. We—I mean the guys inside—know how the wedges flow into each other, because we've got the nodes and the equipment running them. But there's no way to figure it out from the outside."

"If you're right, that would explain why we haven't seen this thing used in combat before," Hauptman commented.

"Maybe," Sandler said. "But that doesn't make it any less of a threat to merchantmen and other civilian craft. You sure there's no way to block it, Georgio?"

Pampas held out his hands, palms upward. "Give us a break, Skipper," he protested. "We're not even sure we've got the exact method figured out right yet. All I said was that if we are right, the effect can't be blocked. It's like gravity in general, working through the fabric of the space-time continuum. I don't know any way to build a barrier to space itself."

"Well, then, how about trying to stop the effect?" Cardones asked hesitantly.

"How?" Pampas asked, his tone one of strained patience. "I just got finished saying we can't stop it."

"No, I mean stop what it's doing to the impellers," Cardones said. "If it's an induced current that's frying the junction points, can't we put in some extra fuses or something to bleed it off?"

"But then the—" Pampas broke off, a sudden gleam coming into his red-rimmed eyes. "The wedge would come down anyway," he continued in a newly thoughtful voice. "But then all it would take would be putting in a new batch of fuses instead of trying to cut out and wire in a complete set of junction points."

"Couldn't you even use self-resetting breakers instead?" Damana suggested. "That way you wouldn't need to replace anything at all."

"And your wedge would be ready to go back up as soon as the breakers cooled," Pampas agreed, nodding slowly. "Probably somewhere in the thirty-second to five-minute range."

"Either way, it would beat the hell out of lying there helpless," Hauptman said.

"Yes," Pampas said. "Yes, this has definite possibilities. Let me pull up the circuit layouts—"

"Negative," Sandler interrupted. "All you're pulling up right now is a blanket. Neck-level ought to do it."

"I'm all right," Pampas assured her. "I want to get going on this."

"You can get going after you've slept a few hours," Sandler said, her tone making it clear it was an order. "Go on, get out of here."

"Yes, Ma'am." Wearily, but clearly trying not to show it, Pampas got up from the table and trudged from the room.

"Best news we've had in months," Hauptman commented.

"Definitely," Damana agreed. "So what's our next move, Skipper? Back to Manticore to report?"

"Not quite yet," Sandler said slowly, fingering the data chips Pampas had left behind. "After all, right now all we've got is a theory as to what's happening. And a possible theory of how to counter it."

She lifted an eyebrow. "Wouldn't it be nice to be able to drop a complete package on Admiral Hemphill's desk instead?"

"Okay," Damana said cautiously. "So how do we go about doing that?"

Sandler was gazing thoughtfully out into space. "We start by setting course for Quarre."

"Quarre?" Damana asked, looking surprised.

"Yes," Sandler said, her eyes coming back to focus. "We're going to commandeer one of the Manticoran freighters waiting there for the next convoy and let Georgio play with circuit breakers on the way to Walther. If I'm right—if the Jansci is their next target—we may get a chance to see if we've really found the answer."

Damana glanced pointedly at Cardones, as if to remind his captain that the Jansci and her high-tech cargo were classified information from mere regular Navy types. "Except that they've never hit a whole convoy before," he pointed out. "Individual ships only. Certainly never one with a military escort."

"And now we know why," Sandler agreed. "But remember that they've been building this whole thing up for several months. They'll know we've been watching for a pattern; if the Jansci is their main target, they'll make sure that's the attack where they break that pattern. It's a perfect way to throw us off-balance."

"I don't know, Skipper," Hauptman said doubtfully. "Sounds too complicated for a Peep operation."

"I agree," Sandler said. "But I don't think the Peeps are working on their own on this one. I think they've linked up with someone else who's plotted out the actual strategy."

"Who?" Cardones asked.

Sandler shrugged. "Sollies would be my first guess. Or maybe the Andies. Someone who has the technical expertise to come up with this gravitic heterodyne in the first place."

"And then foist it off on the Peeps?" Hauptman asked doubtfully. "Knowing full well it's only a matter of time before we figure out how to stop it?"

"Maybe they figure it's a chance to stock up on Manticoran merchandise until that happens," Sandler said. "Or maybe whoever owns the hardware is running a con game of his own on the Peeps."

"That's a kick of an idea," Damana said. "They'd sure be ripe for it, too, especially after Basilisk."

"Just be thankful he didn't dangle it in front of us," Hauptman said dryly. "I bet BuWeaps would be just as interested in this thing as the Peeps are."

"Don't laugh," Sandler warned. "The way these top-secret operations get compartmentalized, someone in Hemphill's office could very well have the sales brochure sitting on his desk right now."

An image flashed through Cardones's mind: Captain Harrington's expression as she was told she and Fearless would be given yet another new weapon to test out. The mental picture was accompanied by an equally brief surge of pity for whoever wound up delivering that message to her.

"Regardless, the sooner we nail this one shut, the better," Sandler went on. "Jack, get us on our way to Quarre. Jessica, pull up the stats on the Dorado and Nightingale and their crews. As soon as any of the techs wakes up, you'll put your heads together and figure out which one would be better for this test."

She looked at Cardones as she gathered up the data chips Pampas had left behind. "And while you do that, Rafe and I are going to go over this analysis with a fine-edge beam splitter. If there's anything Georgio's missed, I want to find it."


"Fearless to all convoy ships," Honor called over the ship-to-ship. "We're ready to leave orbit. Bring your wedges up and move into your positions."

She motioned to Metzinger, and the com officer closed the circuit. "How are they doing, Andy?" she asked.

"Looks good," Venizelos said, peering at his displays. "Dorado in particular seems really eager to take point."

"McLeod's ex-Navy," Honor told him, picking out the big merchantman on her own displays. "Warn him not to get too far ahead of the pack."

"Right," Venizelos said with a grin. Ex-Navy types, they both knew, sometimes forgot that the ship they were now commanding had about as much fighting power as a new-born treekitten. "You heard the Skipper, Joyce. Put a leash on him."


"Dorado acknowledging," Captain McLeod growled, cutting off the com with the heel of his hand. "You heard the Fearless, Lieutenant. Pull us back a few gees."

Hauptman, at the helm, glanced around at Sandler. "Go ahead," the real master of the Dorado confirmed for her, and it seemed to Cardones that McLeod's thin, dyspeptic face went a little thinner. It was bad enough, he reflected, to have had your ship commandeered by a bunch of hotshot ONI types barely twelve hours before departure.

But to have it commandeered by lunatics who had calmly announced their intention of ripping up and rearranging its guts in flight was even worse. The average merchie captain would probably have gone into hysterics at the very thought, or else fled to his cabin and the nearest available bottle. McLeod, former first officer of one of Her Majesty's destroyers, was made of tougher stuff.

Maybe he'd go find that bottle when he learned exactly what it was they were planning to rip up.


Sandler waited until the convoy was in hyper-space before turning Pampas, Swofford, and Jackson loose on the nodes. McLeod, to Cardones's mild surprise and quiet admiration, not only didn't come unglued, but even insisted on squeezing his way into the impeller room, dangerous high voltages and all, to watch them work.

Working on a ship's impeller nodes in flight was roughly equivalent to rebuilding a ground car engine while running a steeplechase. Sandler readily admitted she couldn't remember another case of anyone doing such a thing, but also pointed out that that alone didn't mean anything. Besides, as she reminded Captain McLeod roughly twice a day, surgeons routinely worked on living, pumping hearts without any trouble.

On the other hand, none of their techs were exactly open-torso surgeons. Still, as the days progressed and the new circuit breakers gradually began to appear at the critical junction points, McLeod's permanent expression of impending doom started to ease a little. He began to let the techs work without hovering over their shoulders, spending more time in the wardroom with his crew and any of the ONI team who happened to be off duty, sometimes regaling them with stories of his days in the Navy.

And since Cardones had little to do with either the refit or the day-to-day operation of the ship, he tended to be one of the more regular participants at McLeod's oral history lessons. It was all highly entertaining, and he suspected that at least some of it was actually true.

But mostly, he thought about the Fearless.

Sandler hadn't told him that his own ship would be running escort for their convoy. Maybe she hadn't known it herself. But it added just one more layer of frustration and dread to the voyage. Frustration, because so many of Cardones's friends were within easy com range and yet he couldn't even tell them he was here. He was on a secret mission, and Sandler had forbidden any contact, and that was that.

And dread, because if Sandler's analysis was right, the convoy was soon going to come under attack. Cardones was Fearless's tac officer, and her bridge was where he was supposed to be during combat. Certainly not here aboard a merchantman, being about as useless as it was possible for a Queen's officer to be.

And he was useless. In the quiet dark of the night, that was what rankled the most. The rationale for bringing him into this in the first place had been Hemphill's assumption that this mysterious weapon was a variant of her beloved grav lance. Now that they knew it wasn't, there was no reason at all for him to be here. Sandler ought to call it quits, swear him to secrecy, and just send him across to the Fearless.

But that was out of the question. Sandler had her orders, and like Captain Harrington, she knew how to follow them. Cardones would stay put until they were all told otherwise.

The refit itself seemed to drag on at the pace of a lethargic banana slug, but Cardones recognized that as the skewed perspective of someone who wasn't actually doing any of the work. They were, in fact, still twelve hours out from the hyper limit when Pampas pronounced the job complete.

And at that point, there wasn't anything for any of them to do except wait.


"Nightingale's out, Skipper," Venizelos announced, peering at his displays. "Reconfiguring her sails . . . looks clean."

Honor nodded, her own attention on her long-range sensor displays. As always, right at the hyper limit was the most likely place for a pirate to be lurking.

But there were no impeller signatures showing nearby. "Full active sensors," she ordered.

"Already running," Wallace said. "Nothing showing."

"Very good," Honor said. "Stephen, compute us a course for Walther Prime, and let's get moving."


"Commodore?" Lieutenant Koln, Vanguard's tac officer, called from across the bridge. "They're here, Sir."

"Where?" Dominick demanded, swiveling toward his own tac displays.

"One-three-eight by four-two-three," Koln said. "About three light-minutes away."

Dominick had the images now. "Course?"

"Straight in, Sir," Koln said with a note of satisfaction. "Looks like the escort is riding the convoy's port flank."

"Good." Dominick looked at Charles. "Any last-minute suggestions you'd care to make?"

"None," Charles said. "They're playing exactly as you anticipated."

Dominick felt his chest swell with professional pride. Yes; as he had anticipated. This was his plan, and his alone, and he was looking forward to showing Charles a thing or two about Republican military tactics. "Yes, indeed," he said. "Mr. Koln, alert Captain Vaccares. Activate Plan Alpha."


"Captain, we've got a disturbance," Wallace said suddenly, leaning over his displays. "Off to port, about three and a half million klicks. Looks like—"

He broke off. "Looks like someone's getting hit," Venizelos put in. "Silesian merchantman Cornucopia, by the transponder."

Honor swiveled toward her tac displays. From the target's impeller strength and acceleration, CIC was tentatively identifying it as a merchantman in the two-million-ton range. She was running full out, driving hard toward the relative safety of the inner system.

But she wasn't going to make it. Her attacker was already in energy range and coming up fast, blasting away with lasers and grasers both. "Damage?" she asked.

"No sign of debris," Venizelos said. "They may be firing warning shots, trying to get her to heave to."

But connecting or not, the sheer number of weapons being fired simultaneously indicated the attacker was at least the size of a light cruiser. Way too big for the average pirate ship—

"Captain." Wallace's voice was suddenly tight. "CIC's pulling a Silesian emission spectrum from the raider . . . with something not Silesian beneath it."

"What do you mean, 'not Silesian'?" Venizelos asked, frowning at him.

But Wallace's gaze was locked on Honor's face. And from the tension around his eyes, she knew there was only one thing his veiled words could mean.

They'd found their Andermani raider.

She took a deep breath. "Stephen, plot me an intercept course for that raider," she ordered, still looking at Wallace. "Full acceleration."

"Full acceleration?" Venizelos swiveled to face her. "What about our own convoy?"

"They'll just have to do the best they can," Honor told him, forcing her voice to remain calm. "Joyce, inform the other ships we'll be leaving them temporarily. Instruct them to follow our vector so as to stay as close to us as possible."

Metzinger glanced uncertainly at Venizelos. "Skipper, if someone else is lying doggo—"

"You have your orders, Lieutenant," Honor said, more harshly than she'd intended. It was one thing to sit in a calm briefing room aboard the Basilisk and acknowledge orders in a nice safe theoretical way. It was something else entirely to actually run out on ships full of men and women who were trusting her for their safety.

But she had no choice. "And then," she added quietly, "order battle stations."


On the Dorado's nav display, the distant impeller signature suddenly shifted vector. "There he goes," Cardones announced.

"Who, the raider?" Sandler asked, leaving her quiet consultation with Pampas and McLeod at the back of the bridge and stepping to his side.

"Yes, Ma'am," Cardones told her. "Looks like he's pulling for the hyper limit."

Sandler hissed softly between her teeth as she leaned over his shoulder for a better look. "I don't like this, Rafe," she murmured. "There's something wrong here."

"What, you don't believe there could be two unconnected raiders working the same system?" Cardones asked.

"No," Sandler said flatly. "And neither do you. This is some kind of setup, and we both know it. What I don't understand is why Fearless was so damn quick to abandon us."

"Maybe Captain Harrington knows something we don't," Cardones suggested.

"Maybe," Sandler conceded. "I just hate sitting out here feeling helpless." She rubbed her chin. "And you're sure that raider isn't our Peep?"

Cardones shook his head. "He's pulling way too many gees to be a battlecruiser," he said. "Besides, his emission spectrum is definitely Silesian."

"As far as you can tell from these sensors, anyway," she said with an edge of contempt. "I wish we could pull Shadow out from under the wedge long enough to take some decent readings."

"I suppose we could," Cardones said doubtfully. Sandler had refused to leave the Shadow behind in an unsecured Silesian port, but the dispatch boat was too big to shoehorn into the Dorado's cargo hold without everyone in sensor range knowing something funny was going on. The solution had been to moor her onto the merchie's hull near the upper bow, where the stress bands would hide her from prying eyes but where she could be slipped in and out quickly if necessary. "But if someone's watching," he added, "that could give away the whole show."

"I know," Sandler agreed reluctantly as she straightened up. "Well, whatever's going on, we don't have much choice but to keep going. Just keep your eyes open."

"Yes, Ma'am," Cardones said, frowning as something caught his eye. Had something happened to the Fearless's impellers just then?

Yes—there it was again. A brief flicker, as if the nodes were having trouble keeping the wedge up.

Like something was interfering with them.

A hard knot settled into his stomach. They had only Pampas's professional opinion, after all, that this Peep heterodyning trick wouldn't work against a military wedge. That fleeing raider wasn't far out of the million-klick range; and if he was equipped with the same weapon and was testing its range . . . 

He squeezed his hands briefly into fists, fighting against the almost overwhelming urge to pounce on the com and warn Fearless what they might be up against. But even if he did, there was nothing they could do to counter such an attack except turn and run for it.

And that was something Captain Harrington would never do.

He took a deep breath, forcing himself to let it out slowly. You go into battle, Sandler had reminded him, fully prepared to sacrifice some of your own. It was one of the truisms of warfare; and no one had ever promised him that the ones who died wouldn't be his friends and colleagues. It was the life he'd chosen, and he would just have to learn to accept the darker aspects of it.

Fearless's impellers seemed to be running properly now. Taking another deep breath, Cardones fought the demons from his mind and settled down to watch.

* * *

The minutes trickled into an hour; and finally, the time was right. The Manty warship had continued her chase, her course taking her farther and farther away from the alleged attacker's alleged victim.

More to the point, that course had taken her away from her own convoy. Even if she turned around right now, it would be over two hours before she could burn off her current velocity and get back.

Which meant it was time to strike.

"Prepare to bring wedge to full power," he ordered. "Lieutenant, has CIC sorted out yet which ship is the Jansci?"

"They've run all the transponders in range, Sir," Koln reported. "So far they haven't tagged her, but there are a couple that are still being blocked by impeller shadows."

Dominick nodded. Or Jansci might be running under a false ID. If the Manties suspected there was a leak in their Merchant Coordination office on Silesia, they might have taken such a precaution with this particular ship.

No matter. They were too far out from the inner system to draw attention from Walther Prime's laughable excuse for a government. Once they eliminated the escort, they could cut open each of the merchies at their leisure until they found the one they wanted.

And speaking of the escort— "Did CIC happen to identify the Manty warship?"

"Yes, Sir." Koln smiled slyly. "They make it the Star Knight-class heavy cruiser Fearless. Captain Honor Harrington commanding."

"Harrington?" Dominick echoed. "Harrington? The Butcher of Basilisk?"

"Yes, Sir," Koln said.

Dominick settled back in his chair and sent Charles a smile. "The Butcher of Basilisk herself," he repeated. "Well, well. This is going to be an extra pleasure."

"Indeed," Charles said.

A nice, neutral answer; from which Dominick deduced Charles had no idea who Harrington was. No matter. This operation had been intended to kill two birds with one stone: to prove the capabilities of a devastating weapon against the Manties, while at the same time driving a wedge of suspicion between the Star Kingdom and Andermani Empire.

Now, it appeared, there was going to be a third bird in the path of this particular stone: Captain Honor Harrington herself.

"Bring up the wedge," he ordered, admiring the way his voice rang around the bridge. The convoy, following its escort as best it could, was in perfect striking position now, situated more or less between Vanguard and Fearless. Dominick could head toward Fearless, picking off the merchantmen with the Crippler as he passed. Then, when Fearless turned back to defend them—as she undoubtedly would—he would have her pinned between himself and Captain Vaccares's appropriated Andy cruiser.

"We have the Jansci now, Sir," Koln announced. "Bearing two-four—"

"I see her," Dominick interrupted, a stirring of anticipation in his stomach. First the Jansci, then the rest of the merchantmen, then Harrington. Life was indeed good. "That's your target, Mr. Koln. Order the Crippler prepared for action."


For the first fraction of a second, Cardones thought his eyes were playing tricks on him, or else that something had gone wrong the Dorado's sensors.

And then, the horrible truth rolled in on him. "Captain!" he snapped at Sandler. "That's not a merchie. It's the Peep battlecruiser!"

Sandler was at his side at an instant. "Damn," she bit out. "You sure?"

"She just brought her wedge up to military strength," Cardones told her tightly. "Better trick even than lying doggo—we knew something was there, and so we didn't look at it more closely."

"We would have looked if we'd had the sensors to do it with," Sandler ground out. "And you saw how that first ship drew Fearless off before she could get within range to see through the masquerade herself. Clever. Looks like someone's still pulling the Peeps' strings."

"So what do we do?" Damana asked from the helm console beside Cardones.

"What else?" Sandler said. "We let him come for us."

Her hand, resting on the edge of Cardones's sensor board, tightened against the smooth metal. "And find out if this defense really works."


The Vanguard was on the move now, and the first Manty merchantman was within range. "Fire Crippler," Dominick ordered.

The bridge lights dimmed as the weapon did its magic with the Vanguard's impellers; and with a suddenness that still never failed to amaze him, the Jansci's wedge collapsed.

"Target disabled," Koln confirmed.

"Very good, Mr. Koln," Dominick said. First the Jansci, then the rest of the merchantmen. "Lock onto second target. Fire when ready."


"Skipper!" Venizelos snapped. "We've got—what the hell?"

"What?" Honor asked, her eyes darting to the display holding the image of their fleeing raider. There was no indication it was firing or changing course or anything else that should have startled her exec that way.

"The Cornucopia," Venizelos bit out savagely. "She just fired up a military-class wedge."

"New identification from CIC," Wallace put in. "They now make it a Peep battlecruiser."

Honor felt her throat muscles tighten. Exactly the same trick they'd used themselves on Iliescu back in Zoraster system. Only this time it was Fearless who'd been caught like an amateur.

"She's moving on the convoy," Venizelos continued. "The merchies are starting to scatter. A lot of good that's going to do them. Looks like the Peep's going to— Skipper!"

"I saw," Honor said, staring at the displays in disbelief. Suddenly, without warning, the Jansci's impellers had gone down. "Was she hit?"

"I didn't see any missiles," Venizelos said. "She is within energy range; but I didn't see any—"

He broke off, inhaling sharply. The Poor Richard's wedge had collapsed, too.

"Commander?" Honor demanded, swiveling toward Wallace.

But Wallace looked as bewildered as everyone else on the bridge. "No idea, Ma'am," he said grimly. "I've never heard of anything like this happening before."

"Well, it's happening now," Honor said, watching her displays. Behind them, the Sable Chestnut's wedge was the third to go.

And this time she spotted something else: an odd fluctuation in the battlecruiser's own wedge just before the merchie's had collapsed. Some new Peep version of a grav lance, maybe? Something powerful enough to take down an entire wedge, not just sidewalls?

Or had the fluctuation been for the same purpose as the flicker she'd ordered on Fearless's own impellers an hour earlier? There were two known players on the Peep side now; could there be a third lurking in the shadows?

Abruptly, she came to a decision. "Turn ship and decelerate," she ordered. "We're going back."

Wallace's head twisted around. "Captain?"

"We're going back, Mr. Wallace," she repeated. "The convoy needs us."

"But the raider—"

"The raider will keep," she cut him off, warning him with her eyes.

His mouth worked, but he turned back to his board without comment, shoulders hunched in silent protest. Thinking of their orders from Admiral Trent, no doubt.

Or else thinking about the fact that the enemy was a battlecruiser that outgunned Fearless by probably three to one.

"Peep's altered course toward the Dorado," Venizelos announced. "From the data, CIC speculates that whatever they're doing to the merchie's impellers operates at a range of about a million klicks."

Or in other words, ten times the range of a grav lance. Or at least, of a Manticoran grav lance.

Which meant that Honor's gut reaction a minute ago had been correct. If this was indeed a new Peep weapon, they needed to find out as much as they could about it. Admiral Trent might not be happy that she'd let the Andermani raider escape, but under the circumstances—

"Aspect change in the raider, Skipper," Venizelos announced. "She's also flipped and decelerating."

"Run the numbers, Stephen," Honor ordered. "Assume the battlecruiser waits for us. What's our intercept time?"

"For a zero-zero intercept, two hours thirteen minutes," DuMorne said. "We'll be in missile range twelve minutes before that."

"And the raider?"

"She'll be in missile range of us four minutes after that," DuMorne said.

"Good," Honor said, forcing her voice to remain calm. So the enemy wasn't going to be content with just looting the convoy, or even with suckering Fearless into going up against a ship three times her size. Instead, they were going to guarantee victory by making Fearless fight both ships at the same time.

"Good?" Wallace echoed. "What's good about it?"

"They'll have us surrounded," Honor said evenly, remembering an old, old quote. "This time they won't get away."

She turned back to her displays, ignoring Wallace's look of disbelief. In the distance, the battlecruiser's wedge fluctuated again—


—and with a distant thundercrack and a jolt that could be felt straight through the deck plates, Dorado's wedge collapsed.

"Hot diggedy damn," Captain McLeod's strained voice said into the sudden silence. "Is that what was supposed to happen?"

"Part of it," Sandler assured him, crossing to the engineering status board. "Georgio?"

"Don't know yet," Pampas said, his fingers playing almost tentatively with the keys. "The breakers are still popped, but they might just be too hot to reset."

Cardones looked back at his displays. The Peep was still moving among the scattering convoy, methodically popping merchie wedges as it went.

But something new had now been added to the picture. On the distant marker indicating the Fearless, the green number indicating acceleration away had been replaced by a red one.

Which meant Fearless had given up on the chase. She was decelerating hard, killing her forward velocity and preparing to come to the convoy's rescue.

Where she would face a Peep battlecruiser.

"Captain Sandler?" he called. "You'd better come see this."

"What is it?" Sandler asked, making no move to leave Pampas's side.

"Fearless is decelerating," Cardones told her. "I think she's going to come back."

"Understood," Sandler said, and turned back to Pampas's board.

Cardones blinked. "Captain?"

Reluctantly, he thought, she turned back. "What?"

"Aren't we going to do something?" he asked. "I mean, she's coming back."

"What exactly would you like me to do, Commander?" Sandler countered. "Warn the Peep off? Or shall we just charge to the attack ourselves? Don't worry, Captain Harrington can handle him."


"I said don't worry," Sandler said, cutting his protest off with a stern look. "Kilo for kilo, Fearless has far better weapons than any Peep warship. You know that."

"Besides, this particular Peep has almost certainly had a lot of its armament gutted to make room for their wedge-killer," Damana added. "Fearless should be all right."

"Got it!" Pampas crowed suddenly. "There they go, Skipper. Breakers have closed, and the nodes are back up to standby."

He grinned up at Sandler. "We did it, Ma'am."

"We did indeed," she agreed, some of the lines smoothing out of her face as she clapped Pampas on the shoulder. "Well done, Georgio."

"So what are we waiting for?" McLeod asked. "They're moving away from us right now. We could bring up the wedge and make a run for the inner system, and they'd have to decelerate before they could even think about coming after us."

"No," Sandler said, an odd note to her voice. "No, leave the wedge down."

"But we might at least be able to distract them," Cardones put in. A number on his display caught his eye as it changed— "Uh-oh."

"What?" Damana asked.

"The raider's also flipped over and started decelerating," Cardones told him.


Cardones was running the numbers. "Looks like they'll reach here pretty much together," he said. "They're trying to box Fearless between them."

"They're going to succeed, too," Damana agreed, eying his captain. "This changes things, Skipper. Even if Fearless can handle a gutted battlecruiser, adding a light cruiser's tubes to the mix stacks the odds the other way."

"Again, what do you want me to do about it?" Sandler asked.

"As Captain McLeod suggests, we could run for it," Damana said. "If we can draw the Peep far enough out of position, it would give Fearless a chance to take out the raider first instead of having to face both of them together."

"Unless the Peep decides we're not worth bothering with," Sandler pointed out. "She might just let us go, in which case we'll have done it for nothing."

"So?" Cardones said. "I mean, what have we got to lose by trying?"

"What have we got to lose?" Sandler demanded. "We have everything to lose."

She looked back and forth between Cardones and Damana. "Don't you see? Either of you? We now have the counter to their wedge-killer; but they don't know we have it. If they leave here without finding that out, who knows how much time and money Haven will waste building these things and putting them aboard their ships?"

Cardones stared at her in disbelief. "You mean you'd let Fearless die for that?"

"People die all the time in war, Mr. Cardones," Sandler said tartly. "If it makes you feel any better, they won't have died for nothing."

"Yes, they will," Cardones shot back. "The Peeps aren't going to just recall all their ships to base and load these things aboard them. They'll keep on testing; and sooner or later, they're bound to run into a merchie with the breakers installed."

A sudden cold wave washed over him. "Or weren't you going to tell anyone outside ONI about this?" he breathed. "Were you just going to let merchies continue to get slaughtered?"

"I'm not going to debate it with you, Lieutenant," Sandler said icily. "You have your orders. The wedge stays down." Deliberately, she turned her back on him. "Georgio, let's see the self-diagnostics on those junction points."

Cardones turned back to his displays, his stomach churning with anger, an odd sense of loss digging an empty spot into his soul. He'd been wrong. Elayne Sandler was nothing at all like Honor Harrington. Captain Harrington would never, ever sacrifice people for nothing this way. When she put people at risk it was for duty or defense, not for some stupid psychological game played by dark-minded men and women in dark-minded rooms. That was what she had done at Basilisk . . . and it was what she was about to do right now.

And Fearless, and all aboard her, would die.

There was no doubt about that. None at all. Sandler and Damana might be right about the limited combat capabilities of the battlecruiser, and Fearless could certainly take the light cruiser now coming in from behind her.

But she couldn't take on both at the same time. Not and survive.

He had to do something. Fearless was his ship, and Honor Harrington his captain. He had to do something.

He stared at the display . . . and like a row of dominoes toppling in sequence, the answer came.

Maybe. It would mean disobeying Sandler's direct order, of course, and that would mean the end of his career.

But what was a career for, anyway?

Seated at the helm beside him, Damana was staring straight forward, his own expression a mask. Taking a deep breath, Cardones reached over to his board—

And before Damana could stop him, he activated the wedge.


"What in the world?" Koln said, his forehead wrinkling in surprise.

"What?" Dominick demanded, swiveling his command chair to face him.

"One of the merchies, Sir," Koln said, glancing at Charles before returning his frown to the displays. "The Dorado. Her wedge has come up again."

"What?" Dominick growled, and shifted his own frown to Charles. "What's going on?"

"What do you mean, what's going on?" Charles countered, filling his voice and expression with casual unconcern even as his heart sank a few centimeters within him. "Your crew missed, that's what's going on."

"Impossible," Koln insisted. "The wedge was down."

"Because you caught a corner of it," Charles explained patiently. "You caused enough of a surge to confuse the software, but not enough to actually fry the junction points. I've mentioned this possibility to you before."

He held his breath as Dominick frowned slightly, clearly trying to remember. Charles had mentioned no such thing, of course, because he'd just now made it up. But he'd thrown so much technobabble at the commodore over the past few months that the other hopefully wouldn't remember this one way or the other.

Apparently, he didn't. "Fine," Dominick grunted. "So what do we do about it?"

"Obviously, you hit her again," Charles said. "Try to make it a clean shot this time."

Dominick grunted again and shifted his attention back to the helmsman. "What's she doing?"

"Heading away at full acceleration," the helmsman said. "Looks like she's making for the inner system."

"Mr. Koln?" Dominick invited.

"There are four other ships we haven't hit yet," Koln reminded him. "Given our current position and vector, it would make more sense to cripple them first, then go back for the Dorado."

Dominick stroked his chin. "Will that give us enough time to get back into position before Fearless arrives?"

"No problem," Koln assured him. "The Dorado is hardly going to outpace us."

"Good," Dominick rumbled. "I wouldn't want Captain Vaccares to have to face Fearless alone. We deserve some of the satisfaction of pounding Harrington to dust."

"Just be sure you don't kill everyone aboard," Charles warned. As if that was actually going to happen now. "Remember that part of the plan is to leave survivors who will testify they saw the People's Republic and a disguised Andermani warship working together."

"Don't worry, we'll leave a few," Dominick said, settling back comfortably into his chair. "Carry on, Mr. Koln."

"Yes, Sir." Koln returned to his skeet shooting.

Charles heaved a silent sigh of regret. So the Manties had figured it out already. Too bad—he'd hoped he could get his hands on some of Jansci's really high-tech cargo before the house of cards came tumbling down. Some genuine, useful hardware would have made his next run that much more believable and profitable.

Still, such was the way of the game. And he was hardly going to leave this one empty-handed.

No one was paying any particular attention to him as the Vanguard swung around to target the next merchie. Casually, Charles got up from his chair and began to circle around the bridge in the casual urgency of a man making for the head. Just beyond the head was the bridge's exit.

Standing in the hatchway, he looked back one final time. Sic transit gloria mundi, he thought, and ducked quietly through the opening.

Nobody saw him go.


"I will have your head, Mister," Sandler ground out in a voice with broken-glass edges, glaring at Cardones as if trying to set him on fire through willpower alone. "You hear me, Cardones? You are dead."

"That'll be up to a court-martial to decide," Cardones said, rather surprised at how calm he had suddenly become. The die had been cast, and there was nothing to do now but ride it through. "But for right now, may I have your permission to help the Fearless?"

Sandler's glare only got hotter. "We might as well, Skipper," Damana murmured from her side. "The disinformation thing is out the window now anyway."

"No, it's not," she countered, shifting her glare to him as if astonished that he would dare come to Cardones's support against her. "They'll simply assume they missed."

"Until they get aboard and examine the junction points," Damana said, holding her gaze without flinching.

"Which they wouldn't even have thought to do if he hadn't reactivated the wedge," Sandler snarled.

Damana just stood there silently . . . and slowly the fire died from Sandler's eyes. "They won't let us get away, you know," she said, turning back to Cardones. "They'll come after us and disable us; and then they'll go back and blow Fearless into dust anyway. Then they'll come back as Jack said and find out how we spiked their toy and ruined all their fun. We had a plan; and now you've wrecked it. And for nothing."

"I don't think so," Cardones said, trying to match her gaze the way Damana had. "That is, it wasn't for nothing. Because you're right, they don't realize yet what we've done. And that gives us a weapon we can use against them."

He looked at Damana. "But we don't have much time."

"What do you need?" Damana asked evenly.

"Some equipment from Shadow," Cardones told him. "And I need Ensign Pampas and Captain McLeod to stay behind with me for a few minutes."

Damana threw a sideways look at Sandler's stiff profile. "I take it that means the rest of us are abandoning ship?"

"I'll be damned if I'll leave my ship," McLeod spoke up indignantly.

"You'll do what you're told," Sandler said coldly. For a long moment her eyes searched Cardones's face. Then, reluctantly, she gave a sort of half nod. "Jack, collect the team and get aboard Shadow," she said. "Captain McLeod, order your people to go with them."

McLeod started to sputter, took a closer look at her face, and choked back the objection. "Yes, Ma'am," he gritted instead, and turned to the intercom.

"So what's the plan?" Sandler asked, her eyes still on Cardones.

Cardones gestured toward the displays. "From the way we saw them operate at Tyler's Star, I'm guessing they'll move in close and launch boarding boats after they take out our wedge again."

"Probably," Sandler said. "So?"

"So," Cardones told her grimly, "we're going to prepare a little reception for them."


"That's odd," Wallace murmured. "Captain, CIC just reported one of the merchies has brought her wedge back up."

"I thought you said they'd all been knocked out," Honor said, looking over at her displays. He was right: the Dorado was up and running again, lumbering toward the inner system.

"They were," Wallace agreed. "McLeod must have gotten his nodes working again."

"Any idea how?"

Wallace snorted under his breath. "I don't even know how the Peeps knocked them out."

"Mm," Honor said, frowning at the numbers. Yes, the Dorado was running; but where was she running to? Surely McLeod didn't think he could outrun a battlecruiser in that thing.

And then understanding struck her, and she smiled a bittersweet smile. Of course. McLeod couldn't get away; but what he could do was try to distract the Peep. Possibly even drag him far enough out of position that Fearless would be able to engage the two enemy ships one at a time.

The catch was that if he was able to become enough of an irritation that he actually did any good, that defiance might well cost him his life.

Which left Honor with only two options: to take advantage of his proffered sacrifice, or to instead try to distract the Peep herself into leaving the Dorado alone.

Fearless had finished her deceleration and was finally starting to close the distance back toward the convoy she'd abandoned. The raider behind her, she noted, was accelerating in her wake, continuing to herd her toward the battlecruiser while at the same time being careful not to get close enough that she would be tempted to turn and engage. It was still over an hour back to the convoy, according to DuMorne's plot. Plenty of time for the battlecruiser to deal with the Dorado.

For a moment she studied the numbers. Fearless's acceleration was hovering right at five hundred and four gees. That was far above the normal eighty percent power the RMN normally maintained, but it still left a safety margin of almost three percent against her inertial compensator. . . 

"Chief Killian," she said quietly to the helmsman, "increase acceleration to maximum military power."

Venizelos turned to look at her, but remained silent. He'd probably run the numbers, and the logic, the same way she had.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Killian acknowledged, and the safety margin dropped to zero as Fearless went to a full five hundred and twenty gravities.

"And prepare a broadside, Commander Wallace," she continued. "We'll fire as soon as we're within range."

Because, after all, it was the wolf's job to distract the rampaging bear from the cub, not the other way around.

And with a little luck, the Peep would find out just how distracting HMS Fearless could be.


"We're in range of the Dorado, Commodore," Koln announced. "Crippler reports ready to fire."

"Tell them to make sure they actually hit the damn thing this time," Dominick said pointedly. "Fire when ready."

"Yes, Sir," Koln said, touching the signal key. Vanguard's lights dimmed yet again, and on Dominick's tac display Dorado's wedge vanished. "Good," he said, weighing his options. As long as he was here anyway, he could send a couple of boarding boats to go and loot the attempted runaway.

But if he did, that would leave Jansci floating around on its own behind him, with all that top-secret military equipment aboard. Would the Manties have orders to destroy the most sensitive cargo in case of imminent capture? The Harlequin's crew hadn't bothered with any such sabotage before they'd run; but then, Harlequin's cargo hadn't been as sensitive as what was supposed to be aboard the Jansci, either.

There was no point in taking chances. He opened his mouth to order the ship around—

"Sir!" Koln said suddenly. "We've got another ship on scope. Small one—dispatch boat class, about forty thousand tons."

"Where?" Dominick demanded, scanning his displays.

"Behind the Dorado," Koln said. "It must have been hidden by her wedge. Probably moored to the topside hull; they had their belly to us when their nodes went down that first time. Really hauling gees, too."

"Yes," Dominick murmured. The dispatch boat was indeed eating up space, and at a rate that was impressive even for that class of high-speed ship. That implied it was something special.

He smiled, a sudden wolfish grin. "Well, well," he said. "The Manties are being cute, Lieutenant."

"Sir?" Koln asked.

Dominick gestured at his displays. "There's no reason for the average merchie to carry a boat like that." He cocked an eyebrow. "Which implies she's not an average merchie."

For a second Koln just looked puzzled. Then his face cleared. "The Jansci," he said, nodding.

"Exactly," Dominick agreed. "Somewhere along the line, she and the Dorado must have exchanged ID transponders."

And they might not even have tumbled to the deception if the crew hadn't panicked and jumped ship. Typical Manties.

His smile vanished. Unless the hurry they were in wasn't simply panic . . . 

"Full scan of the Dorado," he snapped. "Look for odd energy or electronic emissions."

"Nothing showing, Sir," Koln said, sounding puzzled. "Except that the nodes are acting like they're on standby. That's impossible, of course—that last Crippler blast caught them dead center, and we saw the wedge collapse."

Dominick gnawed at his lower lip. Koln was right—he'd watched the wedge die himself.

So then what the hell was happening over there? Some new technological deviltry the Manties had come up with? A feedback loop in the nodes, maybe; something that would blow up the impellers and fusion plant after the crew had had time to get away?

He couldn't even begin to guess the details. But the details didn't matter anyway. He'd been right the first time: those Manties were the keepers of a ship full of secrets, and they were going to scuttle that ship.

Or at least, they were going to try.

"Man the boarding boats—double-time," Dominick ordered. "Helm, get us in as close as you can—I want the crews aboard as quickly as possible."

He glared at his displays. Because he would be damned if he would let the damn Royalists take his prize—his prize—away from him.


They were nearly finished when the bone-cracking sound of the collapsing wedge once again echoed through the Dorado. "There it goes," Pampas called from beneath the sensor monitor panel. "Hope the breakers can handle all this stress."

"We'll send a nasty letter to the manufacturer if they can't," Cardones said, looking over his own handiwork. Just wrap the receiver pack around the control cables, Sandler had said, and the remote control would be ready to rock. He just hoped he'd wrapped it properly. "How's it going in there?"

"Two minutes," Pampas said. "Maybe less."

The bridge door slid open, and Cardones turned as McLeod stepped in. "Forward sensor interlocks are disabled," he announced. "And I checked the lifeboat on my way back. Everything's ready."

"Good," Cardones said. "Georgio says two more minutes and we'll be off."

"I hope so," McLeod said sourly, stepping over to the helm and peering at the displays. "The Peep's still coming."

Cardones nodded, craning his neck to look at the impeller status display. "Looks like the breakers just closed again," he said. "Georgio?"

"Finished," Pampas said. "Let me make sure the wires are sealed and I'll be right with you."

"What's he doing down there?" McLeod asked, the worry in his voice tinged with suspicion.

Cardones took a deep breath. "He's just taken the compensators off line."

McLeod's mouth fell open a centimeter. "On a ship with a functional wedge? Are you insane? You fire up the impellers—"

His face suddenly changed. "That's why you had me wreck the interlocks," he breathed. "No compensators, no limit protection on the wedge—you fire it up now, and anyone aboard will be smeared across the bulkheads like jelly."

"Yes, I know," Cardones said evenly, looking back at the display. The Peep battlecruiser was on the move now, sweeping in with sudden new urgency toward the Dorado. Preparing, no doubt, to launch its boarding boats . . . 

"Done," Pampas grunted.

"Good." Carefully, Cardones picked up the attaché case that contained Sandler's remote control system. "Let's go."


"They've dropped another boat," Koln announced. "Standard lifeboat this time."

"Never mind the lifeboat," Dominick growled. The boarding boats were in space now, driving hard toward the drifting Dorado, and there was no indication that whatever the Royalists had done to the nodes was gaining any ground. They should have plenty of time to get aboard and shut the system down before it blew.

But now, with the safety of his precious cargo assured, he was taking another look at the people who had tried to deprive him of it.

They were still fleeing, out there in their souped-up dispatch boat. Running as if their lives depended on it.

Which was, Dominick decided, as forlorn a hope as he'd ever heard of. Certainly Vanguard couldn't catch a boat that fast; but then, he hardly had to catch them to make his displeasure known. "Lock a graser on that dispatch boat," he ordered, shifting his eyes to the lifeboat. The merchantman's lower-ranking crewmen, most likely, left to fend for themselves when their superiors ran out in the faster boat.

Well, they would have the last laugh. They would get to see their former oppressors die.

"Graser ready, Commodore."

"Key it to me," Dominick ordered. This one he would do himself. A shame he couldn't use a missile, he thought regretfully. A missile would be even more satisfying, because that way the Manties would have a few seconds to see their doom bearing down on them. With a graser, unfortunately, they would be dead before they even knew about it.

But missiles cost money, and personal vengeance might as well be economical.

On his board, the fire-control command key winked on. Savoring the moment, he reached out a hand to push it.


Ten thousand kilometers away, seated behind Pampas and McLeod in the lifeboat, Cardones gave the remote-control displays one final check. The heading was keyed, the course maneuver settings locked in. All was ready.

Mentally crossing his fingers, he pressed the button.

* * *


Koln's startled cry cut across the bridge, jerking Dominick's finger away from the firing key before he could push it and jerking his eyes toward the displays.

The Dorado was moving.

Not just a reflexive twitch or jerk, either. The merchantman was swinging around, scattering away the boarding boats swarming toward it, bringing itself nose-on to the Vanguard.

And with its wedge blazing away at full power, it leaped forward.

But not at the pathetic acceleration of a normal merchantman. Not a lumbering, insignificant two hundred gees. Instead, the Dorado was burning through space at an utterly impossible two thousand gravities, fully four times Vanguard's own top rate.

The very shock of it froze Dominick in his chair for that first horrifying fraction of a second. It was insane—the crew would have had to cut the safety interlocks, disable the inertial compensator, and crank the nodes up to a level they couldn't possibly maintain for more than a minute or two before vaporizing under the stress.

Impeller nodes that shouldn't have been operating in the first place! 

"Evasive!" he snapped. "Ninety-degree starboard yaw—full power. Port broadside: fire at will."

The helmsman was on it in an instant, swinging the Vanguard hard over and kicking her into motion. But it was too late. The Dorado was turning right along with it, locked on and still coming.

"Shoot it!" Dominick shouted again, a note of desperation in his voice. He swung his chair around to snarl at Charles—

The snarl died in his throat. The seat beside the tac station was empty.

Charles was gone.

He swung around again, eyes darting to every corner of the bridge, knowing even as he did so that it was a pitiful way to waste his last few seconds of life. Charles had left the bridge and probably the ship, leaving nothing behind but empty promises and the acid taste of betrayal.

Belatedly, the port lasers and grasers opened fire. But with Fearless looming in the distance, all of Vanguard's fire control had been locked into the long-range sensors, and there was no time to recalibrate for short-range fire. One graser beam did manage to score a direct hit, going straight down the Dorado's throat and burning clear through its centerline, and for a brief moment Dominick dared to hope.

But there was nothing on that path of destruction but crew quarters, control systems, and cargo holds. Nothing that could disable those straining impeller nodes or otherwise halt the terrible Juggernaut bearing down on them.

And then there was no more time for firing. No more time for anything . . . except to appreciate a last bitter flicker of irony.

As he had those last few seconds to see his doom bearing down on him.


The Dorado reached the Peep battlecruiser . . . and with just under five hundred kilometers still separating them, their two impeller wedges intersected.

The nodes went first, in both ships, the sudden influx of gravitational energy shattering them into explosions of shrapnel and superheated gas that ripped through the impeller rooms, crushing decks and bulkheads and killing everyone in their path. Shock waves and electromagnetic pulses swept ahead of the shrapnel, crushing and killing and demolishing electronics as they passed. Vanguard writhed in agony; the Dorado, far weaker and more vulnerable than a warship, was already twitching her last death throes.

And then, the expanding spheres of destruction reached the fusion mag bottles.

The Dorado's fusion generator had already died, hammered into useless rubble along with everything else inside the merchantman's hull. But the Vanguard's twin plants, like the beating hearts of the still struggling ship, had somehow managed to survive.

They died now; and for a brief, eye-wrenching second there was a new star in the Walther System's night sky.

And then the star faded, and there was nothing left but a quietly expanding sphere of plasma and debris.


Aboard the recently renamed light cruiser Forerunner, Captain Vaccares stared at his displays in disbelief. One minute the Vanguard had stood alone among a group of disabled merchantmen, waiting like a lion for its prey to be driven to it.

And now, in the blink of an eye, it was gone.

And that same prey, the HMS Fearless, was hailing him.

"Andermani Light Cruiser Alant," a woman's voice came from the bridge speaker, "or whatever you're calling yourself now, this is Captain Harrington aboard Her Majesty's Ship Fearless. You are ordered to strike your wedge and surrender your ship."

"Fearless has turned around again, Captain," the helmsman announced. "She's started accelerating toward us."

"Turn ship," Vaccares ordered. Between the two of them, he and Commodore Dominick could easily have taken a Manticoran heavy cruiser. But with Vanguard gone, he would have had to be insane to think of facing Fearless alone. "Give me full acceleration toward the hyper limit."

The images on the displays canted around as the Forerunner swung a hundred eighty degrees over. Vaccares double-checked the numbers and nodded to himself. The hyper limit was only about an hour away, he was still outside Fearless's missile envelope, and he was faster than she was.

They were going to make it home. Not covered with glory, as Commodore Dominick had planned, or loaded with treasure and the key to Manticore's conquest, as Charles had promised. No, they would be returning to Haven like a dog with its tail between its legs. But at least they would be returning.

And then, even as he came to that conclusion, the forward display flashed a sudden warning. "Hyper footprint!" the tac officer called. "Directly ahead of us."

"Identify," Vaccares ordered. Another Manty? Had the convoy had a second escort lurking out at the edge of the system?

But it wasn't a Manty.

It was far worse.

"Unidentified raider, this is His Imperial Majesty's battlecruiser Neue Bayern," a harsh, German-accented voice announced coldly. "You have no means of escape. Surrender, or be destroyed."

Frantically, Vaccares looked at the tac display. But Neue Bayern was right. Between the battlecruiser in front of him and the Fearless behind him, there was no vector he could take that wouldn't force him into engagement with one or both of the larger ships for at least ten minutes.

He could fight, of course. He and his crew could die for the glory of Haven, or at least to save it from the consequences of getting caught with a seized Andermani ship.

But too many people had already died in this fiasco. Most of them were Manties, but they were dead just the same.

He could see no reason to voluntarily add to their number.

"Strike the wedge," he ordered the helmsman quietly. "And then signal the Neue Bayern and Fearless.

"Tell them we surrender."


Admiral of the Red Sonja Hemphill looked up from the report and steadied her gaze onto the face of the young man standing stiffly at parade rest in front of her desk. "And what, Lieutenant," she said frostily, "am I supposed to do with you?"

Lieutenant Cardones's cheek might have twitched, but there was no other reaction Hemphill could see. "Ma'am?" he asked evenly.

"You disobeyed a direct order from a superior," Hemphill said, tapping a fingertip on the memo pad in front of her. "Captain Sandler's report makes it clear she told you not to raise the Dorado's wedge. Yet you did so anyway. Are you aware that that's a court-martial offense?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Cardones said. "And I make no excuse."

Hemphill felt her face settle into a familiar set of lines. "Aside from the fact that it saved every man and woman aboard the Fearless?" she suggested.

This time there was definitely a twitch. "Yes, Ma'am," Cardones said. "And the crews of the merchantmen, too."

"And do you intend to make a habit of placing individual lives over the value of official Naval or governmental policy?" Hemphill continued. "More to the point for a line officer, do you intend to place the value of these lives over the lawful execution of your orders?"

The young man's face had settled into lines of its own. "No, Ma'am," he said.

"That's good, Lieutenant," Hemphill said, letting her voice chill a few degrees. "Because if you were—if I even thought you were—you would be out of the service so fast it would take you three weeks just to catch up with your butt. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Good," Hemphill said softly. "Then allow me make myself even clearer. You acted out of loyalty to Captain Harrington and the Fearless. I appreciate that. But loyalty must always be balanced with the larger perspective. Here we had a chance—a small one, admittedly, but still a chance—to feed Haven a line of disinformation that could have tied up its time and resources for years to come."

She lifted her chin. "And no matter what you, Captain Harrington, or anyone else aboard Fearless ever do with your careers, you will never accomplish anything that could possibly pay that kind of dividend for the Star Kingdom. Understood?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Cardones said.

"Good." Hemphill nodded toward the door. "You're hereby detached from your temporary ONI duty. You will return to duty aboard Fearless when she returns to Manticore in approximately one month; until then, you're on R and R leave. The yeoman will give you a copy of your orders."

"Thank you, Ma'am," Cardones said.

"And remember that everything you heard, saw, or did while with Tech Team Four is classified," Hemphill added. "Dismissed."

Cardones saluted, and with a crisp about-face he strode from the office.

With a grimace, Hemphill lowered her eyes to the report again. Yes, the kid had disobeyed orders, and she had needed to come down hard on him to make sure he didn't get casual about such things.

But in all honesty, it was hard to fault him for his actions. Even Sandler's own report had conceded it would have taken a miracle for Manticore to have kept up the deception long enough for Haven to commit any serious resources to the Crippler project. Balanced against that was the fact that the team had solved the problem, ended that particular threat to Manticoran shipping, and given the Peeps a sore nose along with it.

And even in the grand scheme of things, saving Her Majesty's Navy a heavy cruiser and its crew was nothing to be sneered at.

Especially when that ship had been instrumental in delivering a captured Andermani light cruiser back to its rightful owners, eliminating a potential source of tension before it really got started.

The Andies placated, and the Peeps humiliated. Two birds taken out with a single stone; and Hemphill was certainly realistic enough to appreciate the economy of such things.

And maybe there was a third bird waiting to be winged by this particular stone. That trick Harrington had used, flickering her impellers to signal the Neue Bayern lurking out beyond the hyper limit, had some definite possibilities. Not as a standard interception tactic per se; the Andies had had to do some very precise maneuvering in order to circle through hyper-space and plant themselves squarely in the escaping raider's path that way. Most Manticoran astrogators weren't competent enough to pull off a trick like that, at least not on a regular basis.

But the maneuver itself was almost beside the point. The point was that Harrington had found a way to use gravitational waves to send a signal to the Andies.

And since gravity pulses effectively moved faster than light and were detectable from much farther away . . . 

Especially if they could combine this idea with the new high-yield fusion bottles and superconductors being designed for the next-generation electronic warfare drones, and maybe throw in something from the compact LAC beta nodes already undergoing testing over at BuWeaps . . . 

A third bird, indeed. Maybe.

Pulling Sandler's report from her memo pad, she slipped in Harrington's and began to carefully reread it.


Bracing himself, feeling a little like the new kid in school, Cardones stepped onto Fearless's bridge.

It looked just the same as when he'd left. Looked, felt, and smelled; and for a moment he just stood inside the hatch, taking it all in. It seemed like forever since he'd left this place. Since he'd left these people.

"There you are," a familiar voice said. "Welcome back, Rafe."

He turned, the new-kid feeling fading away like a light morning mist. Captain Harrington was standing with Andy Venizelos by the com station, consulting together over a memo pad. "Thank you, Ma'am," Cardones said. "How was the tour?"

"Interesting," the captain said. Her voice was casual, but Cardones thought he saw a flicker of something in the exec's face. "Yours?"

"About the same," Cardones said, matching her tone. "Permission to resume my station?"

"Permission granted," she said, and smiled. "Enough lazing around, Mr. Cardones. Get back to work."

"Yes, Ma'am," Cardones said, smiling back. Taking another deep breath, he crossed to his station.

It was good to be home.


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